Honest, almost.

“You could have told me he was younger. I wouldn’t have known the difference!”. The ticket seller at the carousel tells the father of a boy who has just crossed the free-ticket-age-limit of 5 years, while giving away two tickets. The father who had the choice of buying just one, is seen replying with a lot of pride, pointing at the boy “But, he would have known”. Honesty is not the only principle highlighted in this UOB Private Bank ad.

Most of us would have lied as children. “Did you share the other chocolate with your brother?”. The usual reply, “oh yes” from the child is never taken at face value. In fact, the face reveals it all.

However we don’t fear this as an act of dishonesty. The child is expected to grow up to be a mature adult, groomed to behave appropriately in a social context. Well, almost.

I am not feeling proud as i share a couple of episodes of dishonesty from my own life. I must have been 8 years old when one day, the class teacher was narrating a story, while all of us where seated around her. I had this habit of rapidly scrolling through the pages of the book, making this sound effect which was quite addictive. Interrupted by the annoying noise, the teacher looked in its direction and when she could not spot the culprit (I was too quick in taking my hands off the book to get caught), asked us to come forward and admit it. I don’t lie and I’m a good student of moral science and all that, but on that occasion I was too afraid of losing my reputation. My neighbour who was a friend until this incident happened, was punished. But it was me who felt the shame.

Turns out, I didn’t do much better as a teenager. I was caught dozing off in the class, not by the teacher but by a fellow student, who could not stop laughing at the way my head was dancing in the air. I remember waking up to the utterance of my name – the poor chap attempted to explain his way out of trouble by naming me. Not very successful though, since by then I had become alert and put up an act of a bright student fully engrossed in the pages of the book. Once again, my reputation as a good student was instrumental in saving me from the outside and shaming me inside.

The opposite is true as well. The fear of losing reputation can make people more honest.

Honesty Box

When the students in a UK university coffee room saw a “voluntary” collection box as they got their coffee and tea, little did they know that they were guinea pigs of a psychology experiment! It was actually a “Honesty” box – meant to test how many of them paid for their drinks. The box was not the main tool in that experiment – there was this poster placed on the cupboard door above, which is right at the face of the person. Pictures of flowers were used as a poster for a week, but when it was replaced with a close up shot of menacing eyes, the collections increased dramatically. “People paid nearly three times as much for their drinks when eyes were displayed rather than” the flower image, writes Melissa Bateson in this study. See below, the results of the collection across weeks as the pictures were altered to mild mannered eyes in subsequent weeks! Though no one was watching (no CCTV cameras!), “the images exerted an automatic and unconscious effect on the participants’ perception that they were being watched”.

honestybox

The study concludes that the concerns of about reputation is a crucial factor when people decide to be honest.

Many little cheaters

We hit a threshold level for dishonesty which is not just influenced by our fear of losing reputation but also by our internal sense of integrity. This is the highlight of experiments on morality as described by the psychologist Dan Ariely in his famous book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty. Watch this TED talk if you are too busy to read the book.

Participants were asked to write a math test and were allowed to verify the answers by themselves. They had to self-declare the results to the test conductor and were even encouraged to dispose the answer sheet in a paper shredder. Even when they had a good chance to cheat, only a small percentage of participants had stated they got all correct – the big cheaters. A vast majority of the participants indicated their answer count to be (only) slightly above their actual score (you see, the organizers knew the actual results; paper-shredding thing was just a trick). Even when the reward for the score was greatly increased, cheating levels of this large group of “little cheaters” did not increase much.

Finally some facts: I have never cheated in my exams; I have paid all my taxes and have been (brutally) honest with my family, friends and my colleagues. My moral code has been mostly intact.

But as I reflected on the ad, picturing the kid’s eyes light up with awe as he looks at his father, it dawned upon me that it is a blessing to be someone who is looked up, followed and watched, since we have a huge stake to lose by being dishonest.

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