Are people more likely to cheat when times are tough?
A team of behavioral economists from Texas A&M University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on New York traveled to a remote village in Guatemala to answer that question.
What they found surprised them: while most people cheat a little, people who cheat more do so regardless of whether they’re richer or poorer.
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In another finding, people gave more to strangers in another village when times were bad for everyone, indicating people are more empathetic in times of scarcity.
Their study, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, comes as corporations and consulting firms look more and more into behavioral science and how it can affect people’s decisions to buy a product or donate to charity.
RPI behavioral economist Billur Aksoy, originally from Turkey, said her upbringing in a developing country stirred her interest in cheating, which she views as a minor form of the corruption that ran rampant in her homeland.
“Economists get really surprised when they find out either that people do not cheat or they do not cheat to the full extent, especially when the potential cost of cheating is very, very low,” she said. “Because what we say is that if the cost of doing something is less than the benefit of doing it, you should always do it.”
The village was chosen because it was remote and just about everyone was richer or poorer depending on the cycle of the coffee bean crop.
“We looked everywhere on the planet,” study co-author Marco Palma said. “We had to come up with a location or a circumstance, an environment in which people naturally had a scarcity period and an abundance period so that we could use the same group of people … and see how their proneness to cheating changed in these two scenarios.”
Palma is director of A&M’s Human Behavior Lab, which opened in December.
The lab has technology that analyzes facial expressions, skin responses, heart and respiration rates, eye-tracking and neural signals to help researchers learn how emotional responses drive decision-making. It’s part of a field of research that’s gaining traction as a tool to help guide personnel recruitment, website design and store layout.
In one experiment, researchers used eye-tracking to redesign the menu for Messina Hof ’s wine-tasting room in Bryan. They found that tweaks such as putting prices after the wine description instead of lined up to the right prompted visitors to buy with their palate rather than their wallet. Profitability increased 18.6 percent.
In the Guatemala study, participants were told they’d be paid based on the number they rolled on a die, with a one earning them five quetzales, or about 65 cents, and a five earning them the maximum 25 quetzales, orabout $3.25, which was equivalent to a typical day’s pay. Zeros or sixes earned nothing.
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Based on probability, the researchers knew that people cheated 90 percent of the time. But no one pretended to role a five all the time. And the cheating rate was the same both before the harvest and after. The same people cheated the same amount no matter when they rolled the dice.
The implications of the researchers being perceived as wealthy outsiders wasn’t lost on the scientists.
“This would be analogous, for example, to here in the states when people cheat when they’re doing their taxes,” Palma said. “And the same thing happens interestingly when people think about big corporations, big institutions. It’s like, ‘Well, wait a minute, we have tons of money in our corporate account to take people out, so I’m just going to take them to this fancy place and spend a lot of money because I can.’”
Jason Hreha was recruited by Walmart to employ behavioral science for strategic projects in products, marketing and store design. He’s now taking his neuroscience background to Silicon Valley.
“I don’t care if you’re in marketing or product development, whatever,” he said. “Even if you’re an architect, you’re building stuff for people, and so you should really understand how our brains work, how cognition works. Then you can really make better informed decisions just to make better websites and better products.”
David Hoffeld infuses behavioral science in sales, the nation’s second-largest profession, in his book “The Science of Selling.”
“A lot of times products and services get rejected not because of the validity of the product or service but because of how they’re presented,” he said. “And the more we can align selling with buying, the more successful we’ll be and the more we can serve our customers and create deeper levels of loyalty and trust.”
The Guatemala study’s findings on scarcity’s effect on generosity is related to Hoffeld’s discussion of so-called “status quo bias” — an example of which is when organ donation increases when people are asked not to “opt in” but to “opt out.”
“The whole reason that some countries have so many people donating organs and other hardly any comes down to just how you ask them to donate the organs,” Hoffeld said.
Brad Swain, behavioral scientist at San Francisco-based Next Step, did his graduate work on trying to help people make better decisions around climate change.
When it came to booking flights, one of the biggest contributors to personal carbon footprints, the research found that Democrats were more likely to book a flight that had a carbon tax while Independents and Republicans were more comfortable with carbon “offsets.”
“We think of climate change and C02 as being a pretty politicized issue, and it certainly is,” Swain said. “But there are ways that we can frame stuff using behavioral insight to tweak that intervention to make it more appealing to different types of people.”
App designers, dismayed at seeing their products debut with a boom but then quickly fizzle, have come to him with the goal of improving engagement.
“People are downloading (their apps), fussing around with them for a day or two, and then completely disengaging,” he said. “I can give you 10,000 different ways that someone might engage in an app, but I have a theory that there is something you want people to do in the app. … Once we’ve identified the behavior, then it’s a lot easier for people to say, ‘Alright, what are the friction points and what are the benefits that we need to identify for people to sort of cross this finish line.’”
Still, behavioral scientists realize the field is young and a lot of what’s out there is what Hreha calls “BS.”
“Particularly in Silicon Valley, I think people are seduced by the idea that, ‘Oh, well, you know, I can program a computer. Why can’t I program a person?” he said. “I think if we study for the next 500 or 1,000 years, I don’t think one person could ever really truly understand the human brain, human cognition and just the human experience in all its complexities.”