Note: This post has been updated from an earlier version to correct links that were incorrect, or had errors.
Photo Credit: lunch note on flickr photosharing
Have you ever worked in a place where food was being stolen out of the common refrigerator? Ever wonder how they justify that behavior? Ariely discusses how folks in some of our finest institutions of higher learning think nothing of taking a can of coke that he planted in the staff fridge, but will leave behind dollar bills he left there. He supposes this is because taking money is stealing, and taking a coke is something else in the thief’s mind. He then expanded the study to see how folks did when being incentivized for correctly doing math problem and “self-reporting” their answers, and concluded that folks cheat. Leavitt and company at Freakonomics already explored how cheating occurred in Chicago Public schools testing by teachers. Ariely is looking more at the why, and Leavitt at the how.
In the first two parts I talked about how imbuing tests with too much value could pervert behavior, but what about if the people most affected by a test score, and the most incentivized, did not see value in it (not far-fetched given stereotype threat)? Most of Ariely’s work is geared toward why traders in exotic financial instruments that are far removed from real cash may start treating them like monopoly money. Ariely concludes that the farther removed from money (something of a perceived real value), the more likely folks are to cheat and steal.
Looking at Ariely, I think we can see that if a teacher thinks, “Well these scores don’t mean a darn thing,” they could justify cheating in a situation where they felt their performance is being judged on it. I don’t think it would be everyone, but it would only take a few to undermine confidence in the system, which is not very high in many quarters already.