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Large and Small Misbehavior

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Professor Dan Ariely of Duke U. has an article in the WSJ titled Why We Lie.  It's fascinating stuff.  For the participants in Ariely's experiments, the cost-benefit analysis of reward of cheating versus prospect of getting caught is irrelevant.  Lots of people cheat just a little, up to the point where it would threaten their self-image. "Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people."  Manipulations that increase the conscience consequences of cheating actually worked.  Even with self-declared atheists, swearing on the Bible reduced cheating to zero.

I think Ariely may be over-generalizing his results, though.  The "outliers" are few in the participants of his studies, but are those participants representative of society as a whole?  This is a newspaper essay and not a journal article, so he doesn't go into detail on the selection methodology, a critical component for determining how much a study's results reflect the real world.  At one point he briefly mentions that the subjects are "usually college students."  Ouch.  That is a very common problem in academic studies.  College students are a very convenient source for researchers, but not at all representative of population as a whole.

The student-subject problem is particularly acute for studies that touch on crime.  College students, on the whole, are young people with good prospects for making it into the upper-middle class at least.  They are people who have mostly obeyed society's major rules to that point.  You won't find many who have been convicted of a felony.  People with a fundamentally irresponsible outlook on life are far less likely to make it to college, and those with a fundamentally responsible outlook are far more likely to make it there.

For the chronically irresponsible, I suspect that cost-benefit considerations play a much larger role in the decision to commit a crime than Ariely's results indicate.  For mostly responsible people, I do not doubt that he is correct.  But it's the chronically irresponsible who commit most of the serious crime, and experiments like Ariely's don't tell us much about serious crime.

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