People cheat when they can: Study

Cheating is most attractive to people when their window of opportunity is about to close, according to new research from London Business School.

The research has been conducted by Daniel Effron, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior, London Business School; Christopher J Bryan, Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of California San Diego; and J Keith Murnighan, Harold H Hines Jr. Distinguished Professor of Risk Management, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

Their analysis of more than 25,000 cheating opportunities faced by more than 2,500 participants reveals that, when faced with several opportunities to enrich themselves dishonestly, people are more likely to cheat on the last opportunity.

Dr Effron says: “We gave our participants different numbers of opportunities to cheat, undetected, for money. Our results showed that the odds of cheating were higher when people knew that it was their last chance to cheat, compared to when they thought they had more chances left. The data also suggest that people cheat at the end because they want to avoid feeling regret about passing up a final chance for personal gain.”

In one study, Dr Effron and his co-authors hired 327 research assistants to perform several short tasks over the Internet. The assistants were paid based on how long they claimed to have spent on each task. To determine whether the assistants overbilled for their time, the researchers secretly measured how long each assistant actually spent on each task. The results showed that overbilling for a particular task increased by 42% when it was the last one, compared to when some tasks remained.

“We already know that people will cheat on tasks like this, although not as much as they can get away with,” Dr Effron explains.

“Our research shows that people are more likely to cheat at certain time points – namely, at the end of a series of cheating opportunities. This has important implications for organizations that want to reduce unethical behavior but have limited resources for monitoring or auditing. These resources may be more effective if they are deployed at the end of a series of opportunities for dishonesty. For example, invoices submitted just before a contract ends should perhaps be checked extra carefully, as contractors may be more likely to overbill on the last invoice.”

The researchers observed a similar “cheat-at-the-end” effect in three other studies. Participants flipped a coin in private several times. They were asked to report each outcome honestly, but they could earn more money if they lied. The results showed that the odds of cheating were almost 3 times higher on the final flip than on earlier flips.