Many official forms require that you sign your name at the bottom to signify that you have, to the best of your knowledge and ability, supplied honest information. But if you really want people to be honest, a recent study in PNAS suggests, it’s better to have them sign their names at the top of the form instead, before they fill in anything else.
Having people sign the top of a form made them less likely to cheat when reporting how much money they’d earned in a simple experiment, the researchers found, or when claiming travel expenses for their trip to the lab; people who signed in the usual spot at the bottom of the form were, statistically, just as likely to cheat as those who didn’t have to sign the form anywhere.
Most of us would consider ourselves honest people—but that doesn’t stop us from fudging the rules in favor of our team, giving an inflated report of our own performance, or buying knock-off accessories rather than the legit version. At Wired, Joanna Pearlstein talks to behavioral economist Dan Ariely about what leads us to lie, cheat, and steal—and rationalize our behavior to ourselves as not being so bad.
Wired: You write that people find it easier to rationalize stealing when they’re taking things rather than actual cash. You did an experiment where you left Coca-Colas in a dorm refrigerator along with a pile of dollar bills. People took the Cokes but left the cash. What’s going on there?
Black kites are a raptor variety that lives on multiple continents, and like several other varieties of bird (including the crafty bowerbirds), they’re avid decorators. For whatever reason, these black kites are terribly fond of white plastic, and the birds use these bits of our refuse to decorate their nests. Scientists who studied these birds in Spain report in Science this week that there is a meaning—and a strict honesty—to the decoration scheme.
They found that, several weeks before females laid eggs, birds festooned their nests with pieces of white plastic. Fitter birds, in possession of the best territory, tended to use more plastic. Weaker birds, with less-desirable territory, used less. Elderly and very young birds used none. Territorial confrontations are common among kites, and proved closely linked to displays of plastic. Kites with much plastic in their nest were rarely challenged, while those with little were challenged daily, even hourly. [Wired]
With so much at stake, you might think these raptors have the ideal motivation to cheat—decorating more liberally than their status would allow, perhaps, as a “don’t mess with me” message to their rivals. But not so, Fabrizio Sergio and his team found. Kites tell the truth with their status symbols because it’s not worth the risk of being caught in a lie.