We cheat differently based on who we think we are.

This is part of my new series – Learnings from Human Experiments (LHE)

Researchers at the University of Zurich recruited a bunch of bankers and randomly split them into two groups.

Both groups were asked to flip a coin ten times and report the outcomes online. If they got more than a threshold number of heads (or tails) they were told they would get twenty Swiss francs (about 20 USD) for each extra head (or tail) they reported. Nobody was going to check whether or not they reported accurately, which created a very strong incentive to cheat.

But before the experiment began, one group was asked about their favorite leisure activity, highlighting their role as a “regular” person, and the other group was asked questions about their role as a banker, effectively highlighting their “banker identity”.

This is what happened in the end – the estimated cheating rate went from 3% for those thinking of themselves as regular people to 16% for those thinking of themselves as bankers! Crazy, right?

Being reminded of our profession seems to bring out a different moral self.

I came to know about this experiment in the book Good Economics for Hard Times by Abhijit V. Banerjee & Esther Duflo (Nobel prize winners).

Let’s now come to India – where a similar experiment was done, but with college students.

The students were asked to privately roll a die 42 times and record what numbers they got each time. The reward was 50 paise if the die showed one, one rupee for a two, one and a half rupees for a three, and so on.

Students were free to lie about the numbers they rolled. Roughly the same proportion as in Switzerland did lie. But here’s the difference – while those who were reminded of their identity as bankers cheated more in Switzerland, in India students planning to work for the government cheated more (this is what this experiment was designed to test).

In contrast, when the study was again replicated in Denmark, which is justifiably proud of its social sector, researchers found the exact opposite as in India: those planning to join the government were much less likely to cheat!

That’s it – wanted to note down these insights as a stand-alone clue to human nature, as part of my Learnings from Human Experiments series. Also felt like drawing a bit – just for fun. Will keep adding such short experiment based posts, whenever I stumble upon them. Hope you learnt something.

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