Thursday, November 29, 2012

Cheaters vs. Cheating: Words Matter When It Comes to Crossing The Ethical Line

Christopher Bryan and Gabrielle Adams have conducted a neat new study regarding ethical transgressions.  They examined whether wording mattered when it came to the rate of unethical behavior in which people might engage.  Specifically, they examined whether people might cheat to win $5. They asked subjects to think of number between one and ten; they could win $5 if their number was even.  Much prior research suggests that people are much more likely to think of an odd number.  Therefore, a high rate of even numbers would indicate that quite a few folks were likely to be cheating.  Now, here's the interesting twist.  They broke the subjects into two experimental conditions.  One group was told that they were playing a game that "tests how common 'cheating' is on college campuses."  The other group did not use the word 'cheating' - instead, it used the word 'cheaters' to describe the purpose of the research. In addition, subjects were being told that it would impossible for the researchers to know if subjects were "cheating" vs. were a "cheater." 

What did Bryan and Adams find?  Approximately 20% of the subjects in the "cheater" group reported an even number.  That's what we would expect if people are being honest (given the tendency of most folks to pick an odd number in prior studies).  Roughly one-half of the folks in the "cheating" group reported an even number!   Therefore, the slight alteration of wording seemed to matter a great deal.   No one wants to be called a cheater!  People worry very much about how they think of themselves, not just how others think of them.  The word "cheater" moves people to honesty! 

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