Many Of Us Are Small-Stakes Cheaters, But Why?

Kick a golf ball back onto the green. Sneak a peek at an opponent's cards in a friendly poker game. Grab a few hundred extra dollars in Monopoly. Duke University professor Dan Ariely studies cheating, and has figured out what drives us to to do it, and how we justify our actions.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Admit it, you've done it: sneaked a peak at your brother-in-law's poker hand, kept one eye open during a game of Marco Polo, nonchalantly kicked your errant drive out of the rough.

So when there's so little on the line - not even money, in some cases - why do we cheat? And how do you explain it to yourself? Call and fess up. Tell us about a time you cheated: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program: the moral, political, strategic and diplomatic implications of the Emancipation Proclamation. But first, cheating. And we'll begin with a caller, and Mary's on the line with us, calling from Springdale in Arkansas.

MARY: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Mary. When did you cheat?

MARY: I cheat all the time. I play Scrabble online, and I use a Scrabble cheat website. But I always pick a word first, and then I go to the website and see if I can find a better word. About 80 percent of the time, I use the word I pick first.

CONAN: But your word might be cat, and the site would offer you catastrophe, worth a few more points.

MARY: Exactly, exactly. But I don't - I generally go for the funnest word. I don't generally play for points. And so many times I lose, and I don't worry about it, because I just like the words. But sometimes I go for the coolest words.

CONAN: And do you think the other people you're playing with online are cheating, too?

MARY: It's possible. I play with a lot of my friends on Facebook, and I know that many of them are smart, and I just - I don't worry about it too much because I'm playing for fun.

CONAN: For fun, so cheating's OK?

MARY: Well, in this case, yes.

CONAN: Because there's nothing at stake? If money were involved or...

MARY: Absolutely. If money were involved, I wouldn't do it.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Ten cents a point, Mary.

MARY: Yeah, exactly. No, not at all.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call, and good luck.

MARY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Dan Ariely joins us from a studio at Duke University now, where he's a professor of behavioral economics and founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight.

Nice to have you with us.

DAN ARIELY: My pleasure.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you: In one survey, you asked golfers about whether or not they would cheat by moving their ball a few inches. And what did they tell you?

ARIELY: We asked 12,000 golf players lots of questions, but a couple of the interesting questions were the following. We said: Imagine your ball fell in the rough, and you really, really wished it was, like, four inches to the side. That would have been much, much better for you. Would you pick it up and move it four inches? And people said, heaven forbid. I can't imagine I would do it. Nobody I know would do it. It's just not how you play golf, against the rules.

Then we asked them what about kicking it with your shoe? Oh, that's much easier.

(LAUGHTER)

ARIELY: No problem imaging that that would happen.

CONAN: Really? So kicking it to a more favorable position is perfectly OK.

ARIELY: That's very OK, and hitting it with a club is even easier.

CONAN: Ah-ha. Or just ticking it over, and then not counting that as a stroke.

ARIELY: That's right. And I think what happens is that when you pick a ball and you move it away, the deliberative nature of it makes it unbelievable for you and impossible for you to believe that you're not a cheater. But if you kick it, you can just say, you know, I'm just kind of helping karma in some world. I'm kind of pushing it a little bit, and God would play the rest.

And there's something - and it's not really me that is doing it. It's my shoe, and so on. And it's kind of a game that we play with ourselves, that the moment we don't see the consequences of our actions in a vivid way, we can turn a blind eye to it.

And I think we see it in many places: illegal downloads, all kinds of things like that.

CONAN: So it's the equivalent of getting the fun word off the Scrabble cheater's website, as opposed to using the word you came up with yourself.

ARIELY: That's right. And the caller, she said she was doing it when it's for fun. She wouldn't do it for money. And I think it's a question of how vivid it would be for her that the money exists. So I think if she had to take money out of the pocket of her friends, right, it was kind of clear that she's just stealing from them, of course you wouldn't do it. She wouldn't go to her friends' homes and steal money from it.

But if the money was deposited in some central bank or on Facebook, and she was doing it and it didn't really feel like money, it was more for points and they could be, you know, traded off for some other games on Facebook and so on, all that would make it feel, like, less real, less money-like, and she would be even more likely to keep on cheating and taking money away, but without thinking of it as money at that point in time.

CONAN: Here's an email from Ada(ph) in San Francisco: When have I ever cheated? A few times in the past 10 years, I've purchased office supplies for my business and let my daughter use them for school. I was a very honest kid and have tried to be a totally honest adult. I really despise cheaters, primarily because they feel entitled and justified in how and why they are cheating.

So there you have the two impulses, Dan Ariely, admitting - well, I guess petty theft I guess is not too strong a word - and then hating people who do that.

ARIELY: Yeah. So I - I tell you, I think we have a very strong tendency to hate cheaters. But the reality is that most cheaters are everybody.

(LAUGHTER)

ARIELY: So, you know, we tend to have an easy time kind of raising a finger and say, oh, it's this banker or it's this particular person, and if anybody else was in the job, they would have acted very differently. The reality is that we all have the capacity to cheat a little bit and feel good about ourselves.

And I'll just give you a small example. In many of our experiments, the way they work is the following: We give people a sheet of paper with 20 simple math problems, and we tell people go ahead and solve as many of those as you can, and we will pay you a dollar per question. People work as hard as they can for five minutes. At the end of the five minutes, we say stop, put your pencil down, count how many questions you got correctly.

Now take the sheet of paper and go to the back of the room and shred it so there's no evidence remaining. Come to the front of the room and tell us how many questions you got correctly. And people come, and they say they solved six problems, we pay them $6, they go home.

What people don't know in the experiment is we played with the shredder. And the shredder only shreds the sides of the page, but the main body of the page remains intact, and we can find out how many questions they really solved correctly.

And what we find is that lots of people cheat a little bit. So we've tested about 30,000 people so far, and we found 12 big cheaters, people who cheated kind of all the way, and together they stole $150 from us. And we found 18,000 little cheaters that together stole $36,000 from us.

And I think it's - for me, it's kind of this realization, that it's true that there are few big cheaters out there and it's really terrible, but the capacity to cheat a little bit and feel good about ourselves is really much more common than we think it is. And because of that, it's much more dangerous. And because of that, also, we need to think about how we engineered the environment - especially around politics and the business world - not to let that cheating kind of blossom and create tremendous devastation.

CONAN: Dan Ariely's latest book is called "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves." And we're talking cheating - smalltime cheating - this hour, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Andrew's on the line with us from Cleveland.

ANDREW: I'm finally fessing up, after decades. I cheated voraciously at the game "Stratego." by Milton Bradley. There are two colored pieces. There's an orange army, and there's a blue army. And I would always elect to be the blue army and set my opponents up in a way so that a light would be shining from behind them and casting through the pieces, showing me their entire setup and their entire strategy, where their flag was, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

CONAN: So you knew where the mine was.

ANDREW: Exactly, or the various mines. And so I ended up having to change the game a bit for myself, because I didn't want them to catch on. So the strategy then became: How much do I sacrifice so that I don't look omniscient?

CONAN: Oh, so you don't like Patton roaring through France.

ANDREW: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Andrew, how long did you do this?

ANDREW: Oh, the better part of my teenage years.

CONAN: So, teenage years. And was there finally a revelation, where you decided to play the game straight-up?

ANDREW: My brother caught it. He finally figured it out. And...

CONAN: Your older brother, or your younger brother?

ANDREW: My much older brother. He's seven years older than me. And actually, the only way he found out was to come around and peak at my side to try to see why he couldn't beat me, and it was then he saw his pieces were highly visible through the light behind him.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Was there some retribution?

ANDREW: If there is, I've all but blocked it out. But I guess, yeah, there probably was.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it. That is systematic cheating, and again, for nothing better than the ability to boast that you beat your brother in a game of "Stratego."

ARIELY: Yes, and it actually brings up all kinds of questions. One question, of course, is about slippery slope. It's about what happens when you do one thing that is, you know, clearly against your brother in a kind of a very unfair way. Does it make other aspects of your relationship deteriorate in the same way? Would it be also, all of a sudden, easy to cheat your brother in other aspects?

And then the other question is really this separation of moral ground. So if we take Andrew, we can ask whether somebody who's cheating in "Stratego" for a long time is also likely to cheat in other things, to other people.

And one of the things I discovered - I talked to some people from the mafia, people kind of a part of organized crime.

CONAN: Where do you go to find - oh, prison, I guess.

(LAUGHTER)

ARIELY: Actually, no. I talk to people who've been out of prison already.

CONAN: OK.

ARIELY: And personally, I went to New York City. It turns out, in Durham, we don't have that many, but New York City has quite a few. And one of things that is amazing about people who've been in organized crime is that they have absolutely no morals in everything that they - kind of has to do with the outside world: the IRS, clients, you know, insurance companies and so on.

But they have an incredible, stringent relationship with morality when it deals with people inside the family. A handshake is a handshake, and a promise is a promise, and there are some things you just don't - you just don't do. And it was an incredibly strong example of this partitioning of life into things that are outside and inside the family.

But I think we all do it in some areas. So, for example, I look at my undergrad students, and none of them would be embarrassed if they were caught that they have illegal downloaded music on their computers. They basically take this one aspect of life, and they don't think of it as a reflection of their morality at all.

And I think we all do this partitioning to some degree, that there are some areas of life that we can behave immorally, but we somehow don't see the carryover to other areas of life. We just kind of partition it and set it aside as something that is just acceptable in its own domain.

CONAN: Here's an email, sent anonymously: I cheat against small rules, like once when a sign said no parking, I moved the sign. It was weighted by a rim filled with concrete. I just rolled it over a spot. Otherwise, there would've been no place for me to park. I don't cheat in games or in business, but I'll cheat myself by saying I walked a mile when it was only six blocks, or saying I can have another piece of cake.

Cheating another person makes me feel really awful. Of course, you cheated the person who could've parked in that other spot. In any case, we're talking about cheating when the stakes are low. Call and tell us about a time you cheated: 800-989-8255. Or send us an email: talk@npr.org.

Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. This past spring, in a high school chess tournament, one player was caught cheating. He used a banned program on a handheld computer to pick his moves. One marathon runner in the United Kingdom hopped a bus in the middle of the race then tried to claim a personal best when he crossed the finish line in under three hours.

We're talking about why we cheat when the stakes are low. Some of us cheat on the golf course or at family game night or in trivia contests at the local bar. So fess up. Call and tell us about a time you cheated, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Dan Ariely, he teaches behavioral economics at Duke University and wrote the book "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves." And let's talk with Lindsay(ph), Lindsay with us from San Antonio.

LINDSAY: Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

LINDSAY: I just (unintelligible) a couple Christmases ago, my family of four, we were playing poker, my dad, my mother, my brother and myself. And I'm really bad at poker. So my dad would tell me how to bet, he would tell me what cards to play and how to play them, and he would look at my brother's hand when he got up to go get a drink or whatever.

And my dad and I took my brother for about 60 bucks and then split it between us.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And perfectly OK, not merely cheating, but a conspiracy.

LINDSAY: Exactly, and it's fine because it was my dad's idea, and I'm the kid, so it's OK.

CONAN: So if the godfather told you to do it, it's OK.

LINDSAY: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: All right, Lindsay, thanks very much, I appreciate it.

LINDSAY: Thanks.

CONAN: And Dan Ariely, I wanted to read this email because there's this family context that she's talking about. When did I cheat, emails Renee(ph)? A better question is when do I not cheat? I cheat at every game or competition with my family that I think I may not win. This is a family understanding. We all cheat. In fact, we cheat so often, we've had to make it very clear to everyone when cheating would not be considered appropriate, and even that gets hems and haws.

Currently, we're competing to see who can lose the most weight by February. The only cheat that could actually occur is lying about your weight. It was made perfectly clear that cheating would not be acceptable in this circumstance. I come from a very competitive family of seven sisters. We can make everything a competition. Our family motto is: We're liars and cheaters, and we think it's funny. This was said to us by a friend who joined in the competition but was unaware of the cheating policy. She knows better now. This does not continue into the rest of the world. In my day-to-day life, I expect honesty and can be counted on to be painfully honest in return.

So there's - within literal families, not just mafia families, there's a different set of rules sometimes.

ARIELY: Yeah, you know, the story about the daughter and the father I think brings kind of two points to mind. One is that people are more idealistic with their kids. So when we remind people about their kids, or when they see teddy bears, actually people do become more honest because there is some innocence about childhood that people don't want to spoil.

But the other thing is that we find that people find it easier to cheat when they are cheating for somebody else. So imagine our little experiment in which people solve these little math problems. And in one condition you cheat for yourself, whatever ill gains, I mean extra reporting you do, you pocket the money. In the other condition...

CONAN: So if you say you got six answers right when you only got four answers right, that's the extra?

ARIELY: That's right. And in the other condition you are paired with somebody else. So now everything you overclaim is shared between the two of you. What happens now? Dishonesty actually goes up. And if we take these two people, this pair, and we play some games with them so they know each other better and care more about the other person and increase their trust a little bit, now dishonesty goes even further.

So there is something that when we help other people, we all of a sudden feel that it's more OK to be dishonest. And I think, by the way, this is one of the reasons why in politics dishonesty is so prevalent because politicians can very easily say to themselves that their dishonesty is not for them, it's for somebody else, right? If you only voted for me, your life will be so much better that it's perfectly justifiable to exaggerate a little bit here and a little bit there or maybe even more than a little bit.

CONAN: There was - there's an aspect of rationality I wanted to ask you about. At this year's National Scrabble Championship, one of the top young performers was kicked out for hiding blank letter tiles. What could possibly drive somebody to do that when he knows they're going to count the tiles at the end? There's only two blanks.

ARIELY: Yeah, I think that the idea that people consider the long-term benefit of their actions is probably not correct. I mean, the reality is that if you look across all areas of behavior, there's not evidence that people really think about the long-term consequences, right? We overeat, under-spend, text and drive, kind of you name it. People just don't think about the long-term consequences.

Now in dishonesty it's particularly crucial because the theory of dishonesty is that people think about the consequences of their actions, and that means if they punishment will be high enough, people would never engage in that. So, for example, if we have the death penalty, if there's a death penalty, why would anybody ever commit a crime because they could get killed for it?

But you know what? When you look at the data, there's no evidence that states that have the death penalty have a lower crime rate. Or California, three strikes and you're out. Under those conditions, who would commit the third offense? But you know what? People just do. People don't think about the long-term consequences of their actions.

And even judges that I've talked to said that it's rare that anybody in their court case thinks about the long-term consequences, that crime is mostly, white-collar crime, is mostly about taking one small step and rationalizing that one small step and then taking another step and another step and another step.

And I think to understand the behavior of the Scrabble cheater or the CEOs who exaggerate on their resumes or people in banking who are doing all kinds of things we wish they didn't, it is one thing to look at the whole sequences of events and say we would have never been able to do it, but it's much more important to look at the first step and to say what have they initially done, and how do they rationalize and how they became a different person after that and took the next step and the next step because I think this kind of understanding is much more important to curbing dishonesty that this approach of saying oh, they were just bad people.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Charles, Charles with us from Charleston.

CHARLES: Yes, hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a big fan of the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

CHARLES: And thank you for having this topic today. I do find it very interesting.

ARIELY: By the way, can I stop you for a second? So Charles just gave you a compliment. There's a lot of nice research showing that when people give you compliments, you like them more, you appreciate the compliment, and you do it even if you know the compliment is not sincere.

CONAN: I'm sure it's totally sincere in Charles' case.

ARIELY: Oh in this case, of course, yes.

CONAN: Everybody from South Carolina is totally sincere all the time. Is that right, Charles?

CHARLES: You know, I won't comment on that one.

CONAN: Well, we'll just go out on the Appalachian Trail, OK?

CHARLES: All right. My comment was this: I am someone who used to cheat fairly regularly, specifically in the world of online gaming. I encountered players who knew various players who knew various cheats, glitches and exploits that made them much better than other players. And after befriending them, they taught me these things.

The more time I spent, however, the more I realized ultimately as more people learn to exploit the game, more people take advantage of it, and even with respect to my own accomplishments, nothing meant everything when everyone cheated.

So the more time I spent in an environment full of cheaters, the less I desired for there to be any kind of cheating.

CONAN: The less value you put on the experience.

CHARLES: Yes, and as a result of that and other experiences with different kinds of games where cheating was more difficult because the game was more interactive, I really discovered that I get a much better experience when cheating is something I choose not to do or is taken off the table.

CONAN: In some of those games, though, isn't - the cheat codes, those are sort of built in. It's part of - you know, it's like you've hacked something. It's not really cheating. It's part of the game.

CHARLES: Well actually, while that is very true, in a lot of games, the game designers themselves are now building in features such that while you have the ability to use those cheats, it will do things like prevent you from saving your game or prevent you from earning certain accomplishments.

CONAN: Ah, so if there's highest score posted on some website somewhere, your score would not be included?

CHARLES: That's likely, and the other thing is that it seems that the game developers are actually finding ways to teach us that cheaters never prosper.

CONAN: Cheaters never win. I'm not sure that's quite true, but it's an interesting observation. Dan Ariely, that sort of - that's an interesting concept, that they know you're going to cheat, but they're - they know when you are, and they're not going to count it.

ARIELY: I think it would be lovely if it happened in many areas of life, but of course a computer game has much more control over what people do. The other two points in what Charles has said, which I think are important, is the first one is about what's called social proof. And social proof is the idea that if other people are doing it, it must be OK.

And I'll tell you about one of our experiments. So in one of our experiments, we did the same thing. People solve these little problems, but we had one person who was cheating in an egregious way. Thirty seconds into the experiment, he raised his hand. He said: I solved everything. What do I do now?

And the experiment said, you know, you solved everything. You are free to go. And that person went with all the money. What happened to the other people who basically observed somebody cheat? Lots of people cheated to a higher degree. But there could be two explanations, here.

One explanation could be that you just proved to people that in this game, you can cheat and get away with it. The other explanation is it's not that it's proving that you can get away with it, it's giving people a social context in which cheating is OK, your friends are doing that. So to tease those two explanations apart, we dressed the cheating student in a different outfit, and here's what happened.

We ran this experiment at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Everybody was a Carnegie Mellon student. The acting student was a Carnegie Mellon student. In the second condition, he was wearing University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt. Now imagine what happened when you're a University of Carnegie Mellon student and you see somebody from a different university that you don't like so much cheating in an egregious way. They still teach you that in this experiment, you can cheat and get away with it, but they don't give you the social proof that your people are doing it, and now actually cheating went down. So I think...

CONAN: So somebody from another tribe, as it were, does not provide the same social cover.

ARIELY: Yes. But if it's people from your tribe, now cheating could just become much more rampant. So we do take - we know basically what's right and wrong. And if you stop people and you get them to think about it, people can tell you what's right and wrong. But the reality is that, day to day, we're much more influenced by the people around us, by the people we're associated with.

And if we are in an environment in which people misbehave - and you can think about cheating in universities, or you can think about online gaming, all kinds of other things - there could be kind of an understanding over time that kind of becomes slippery slope and gets worse and worse and worse over time.

And then the final point that Charles was making was about the importance of trust, what happens when people start violating our trust. All of a sudden, the whole fabric of the society is not as useful. So, you know, banking. Many people have lost trust in banking, so they have their money not in the banking system, not invest in the stock market. They might actually not be able to reach retirement because of that.

The moment you have too much cheating happening, all of a sudden we can lose trust in the whole system, and that could be incredibly devastating. And that's why we need to think about honesty and trust as public goods, as something that we should all help and fight a lot to keep as intact as we can, because otherwise that can damage everybody.

CONAN: That's why people get so upset about steroids in baseball. Charles, thanks very much for the call, and stay invisible, OK?

CHARLES: Thank you very much.

CONAN: All right. Here's an email we have from Ruth: I cheat when doing crossword puzzles, but only when my frustration tolerance gets too high for it to be fun anymore.

Josh in Memphis emails: I work for a small LLC. To save money, I took a pay cut of around 10 percent a while back. To make up for the discrepancy in pay, I put up all of my personal gasoline expenses on our company card. I've been doing this throughout six months, and I have no qualms whatsoever for doing it. In fact, it seems to me more like fair trade than stealing or cheating.

He must work in the accounting department of the LLC or somebody's is going to find out. We're talking with Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke. How did you come up with that title?

ARIELY: So a lot of time when we tell people about our results, they say, oh, I knew that all along, but, of course, they didn't really know it all along. So that's a reminder that we don't really know all along the things that we think in retrospect that we know.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Here's an email from Lenny. Lenny works - calls us from Phoenix.

LONNIE: Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead. Oh, it's Lonnie. Excuse me. Got my vowels wrong.

LONNIE: Lonnie. I don't mean to bring up another theme, but I wanted to tell you that unless you believe in the supernatural, I think there's always a cheater at this game, and it's a game that I played at every slumber party I ever went to growing up. And the game is Ouija Board, where you have a board with letters, yes and no, and two people put their hands on the gadget. You ask a question to the spirit world, and it gives you an answer by having the gadget move.

CONAN: And the gadget is a very good speller, as I understand it.

LONNIE: Excuse me?

CONAN: It's a good speller.

LONNIE: Yes. Unless you're really young, and then it comes out kind of weird.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So you understood that you were cheating and were not being guided by the invisible hand of whomever was being consulted.

LONNIE: Yes. And I would create little, elaborate stories. There was a ghost in the room, or I knew the name of the man that my friend was going to marry. And I did it every single time, I guess, for the purpose of sheer entertainment. But if you think about it, unless you believe in the supernatural, that game became popular because one person always cheated, at least.

CONAN: I've not thought of it that way. Dan Ariely, I thought people actually - some people actually believed it.

ARIELY: Yeah. So I think it's a good question. So I've never studied this game in detail, but there's kind of a couple of different ways to think about it. One, is that somebody is cheating in an active way. The other one is that it's basically about willful activation of belief that is a little bit under the radar. So think about the following.

Imagine you go to a sports game, and the referee is calling a call against your team. You can't help but see things objectively or see things not objectively. You can't but help see things from the perspective of your team. You can't help but think that the referee is evil, vicious, stupid or something. So imagine that there are two answers - yes and no - and you don't think that you're cheating or you're pushing it in one direction.

Could it nevertheless be the case that you're doing it in slight - slightest way to see reality in the way that you want? And if your friends are doing it as well, you could have a group that nobody is planning on cheating in an egregious way, but everybody is acting on their wishes in a way that, in total, makes the game show people's preferences.

CONAN: Lonnie, thanks very much for the call.

LONNIE: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: A couple more emails. This from Matt from Toledo: I've had a few incidents of cheating, but I found I use the technicalities of the game to work in my favor. On the flip side, I always play pool as a gentleman's game and allow a less skilled player a little leeway in their shots. I've cheated twice in pool and admitted both times and never lived it down from my friends.

This from James: I always cheat at solitaire, playing every card instead of one of every three. I still almost never win.

And from Brent: In eighth grade, I cheated on my Bible verse tests in school. I thought it was stupid to memorize entire chapters of the Bible, so I came up with methods to cheat. Would I do it again? Yes. Just more carefully because I got caught.

There's the deterrence principle, people not deterred by being caught in grade school. They would do it again, but they'd just do it better.

ARIELY: Yes. So that's kind of, you know, a sad proposition. But because he mentioned the Bible and because we're getting very close to the Day of Atonement, I think it's worthwhile saying something about what is the value for atoning for sins and getting renewed and does it really work? So we have done these set of experiments in which we gave people hundreds of chances to cheat overtime. Every time is a small amount but hundreds, hundreds of times, chances over time.

And what we basically see that people cheat a little bit in the beginning, kind of trying to balance feeling good about yourself, cheating a little bit, feeling good. And then at some point, many people switch and start cheating all the time. And we call this the what-the-hell effect. And the idea is that you think of yourself in a binary way. You're either good or bad. And if you're not good, you might as well enjoy it and go all the way. So then that we had this pattern of people cheating a little bit and then cheating all the time, we said, why would people ever stop? What would get people to eliminate?

And we thought about both the Catholic confession and the Day of Atonement, and it turns out they both work. You get people to confess, and all of a sudden cheating goes down quite dramatically.

CONAN: Dan Ariely, thanks very much for your time. The Emancipation Proclamation coming up. This is NPR News.

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