Cheater, Cheater: Human Behavior Lab Studies Cheating As An Innate Trait
Is cheating something desperate people do in scarce times in order to get by, or is it a character trait?
Researchers in Texas A&M University’s Human Behavior Lab put this question to the test during times of scarcity and abundance and found evidence that cheating is more likely caused by an individual’s propensity to cheat than external factors.
Human Behavior Lab Director Marco Palma and Billur Aksoy, assistant professor of economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, published their findings recently in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.
“This experiment helped bridge the gap between the lab and the real world, and we can inform policy makers and make accurate predictions of how humans will react under different types of environments,” Palma said.
Palma said famous criminals’ propensity for cheating has been attributed to their circumstances and being a product of an impoverished upbringing. To test this theory, Palma and Aksoy selected a remote community in Guatemala for a field experiment to help determine whether scarcity, or impoverished situations, truly influence a person’s propensity to cheat and lie.
The experiment gave participants the opportunity to cheat without any repercussions, and they were tested both during times of scarcity and relative abundance. Since the village where the experiment was held relied solely on coffee production for their livelihood, the abundance period would be during the five-month window when coffee is harvested weekly, and scarcity would be tested during the seven months of no harvest, and therefore no income.
The experiment included giving participants a cup and dice and asking them to roll the dice with the cup. Depending on the number rolled, participants received monetary compensation for filling out a survey. If a one was rolled, the participant received five quetzales, which is a little bit less than a dollar. Rolling a two paid 10 quetzales, a three paid 15 quetzales and so on. Rolling a six received nothing. Participants were asked to roll the dice twice by shaking the cup.
“The first time is the one that counts, and then they shake it again so nobody else sees what they rolled,” Palma said. “So now people have an opportunity to cheat in order to increase their earnings. We did this in the scarcity period, and again in the abundance period.”
By even distribution, each number should be rolled about one-sixth of the time, he said.
“If you look at the high paying numbers, there are three numbers out of six. So, 50% of the time they should report a high payoff and 50% of the time a low payoff,” Palma said. “We find that they reported about 90% of high numbers during scarcity and about 90% in abundance. So, there was no change in cheating across the two periods. This tells us there is no real change for the propensity to cheat during scarcity and abundance. Meaning, this is more like an inner characteristic of an individual.”
Cheating for friends and strangers
The second part of the experiment gave people the opportunity to cheat for someone in their village, the in-group, like a family member or friend, and increase their monetary benefit.
“In general, people cheat for the in-groups, but at a lower rate than they would for themselves. And this doesn’t really change across the scarcity and abundance conditions,” Palma said.
Next, villagers were given the opportunity to cheat for a stranger, the out-group, someone outside of the community.
“During the abundance period, people did not cheat for the out-group,” Palma said. “In other words, if it is somebody who is outside of the group, the level they reported for the high payoffs was exactly 50%, which is the expectation. But during the scarcity period, the gap between the in-group and the out-group was closed. All of a sudden people started cheating for the out-group at the same rate as they did for the in-group.”
Palma explained that the participants’ willingness to cheat during scarcity was unexpected. During the scarcity period, the boundaries of the in-group and out-group disappear not only because people are willing to incur a moral cost, but they are also willing to incur monetary costs by giving the same amount of money to both groups.
More than coffee farmers
According to Aksoy, these findings appear to be universal.
“In our experiment, we did not find any significant impact of scarcity on cheating behavior when the beneficiaries were the subjects themselves,” she said. “In a recent unpublished study, titled ‘Poverty negates the impact of social norms on cheating,’ other researchers also reach the same conclusion in their experiment with rice farmers in Thailand. This suggests that our findings are not exclusive to Guatemalan coffee farmers, but, of course, there is more research that needs to be done in order to better understand this phenomenon. In fact, a study conducted in 23 countries highlights very little differences in cheating behavior across the countries. ”
The Human Behavior Lab has recently received a grant, with Drs. Catherine Eckel and Jonathan Meer from the economics department at Texas A&M, to continue studying cheating behavior, and they plan to conduct follow-up experiments within the U.S.