Fake and counterfeit goods promote unethical behaviour

By Ed Yong | April 9, 2010 9:00 am

SunglassesAdorning yourself in fake goods, be it a replica Gucci handbag or knock-off Armani sunglasses, makes a statement. It says that you want to feel, or be seen as, wealthier than you actually are. It signals an aspiration towards a richer lifestyle. Of course, such products can’t actually change a person’s status, but a new study suggests that they can change people’s behaviour, and for the worse.

Francesca Gino from the University of North Carolina has shown that counterfeit products actually make people behave more dishonestly. They cheat more in tests and they judge others as unethical with greater abandon. Even worse, they’re completely unaware of this impact. This effect is heavily ironic. People often buy fake goods to look good to other people. But Gino’s study shows that these products can affect our moral choices precisely because they make us look worse to ourselves. As she writes, “Feeling like a fraud makes people more likely to commit fraud.”

In her first experiment, Gino told volunteers that they were going to wear a pair of real of fake designer sunglasses while doing certain tasks. Their job was to test out the glasses. In reality, all the eyewear on offer was real and each cost a princely $300. But even though everyone had the same shades, the volunteers who thought they were wearing the fake ones were more likely to cheat in the tests.

First, they were given a problem-solving task where they would be paid for each correct answer. The answer sheets were anonymously posted into a box and the recruits had to write how many questions they had solved. As far as they knew, they could make up any number they liked but, in reality, Gino had coded the worksheets to give away their identity. She found that 71% of the recruits who wore fake sunglasses cheated in the test, overplaying their own successes. In contrast, just 30% of those adorned in authentic shades resorted to lies. Neither group actually scored better or worse than the other.


SqaureIn a second test, they saw a square divided in two down its diagonal and had to say which of the two sides had more spots. If they said the left side, they received half a cent but if they said the right side, they got fifty cents instead. This presents a stark conflict between answering truthfully and earning the most money. And over time, the recruits who wore fake sunglasses (but not the real ones) became more and more likely to choose the right side, even when there were patently more dots on the left.

For her next experiment, Gino showed that counterfeit goods can change how people view the actions of others. Again, 79 students were given sunglasses that were ostensibly real or fake. This time, after allegedly test-driving the eyewear, they had to fill in a questionnaire about moral behaviour.

Compared to those wearing real sunglasses, volunteers who wore counterfeits said that people they knew were more likely to act dishonestly, from taking home office stationery to inflating an expenses claim. And given fictional scenarios involving moral choices, the counterfeit-wearers were more likely than their peers to think that other people would behave unethically. It seems that people who wear fake goods interpret the actions of others through a lens of dishonesty.

What’s behind this change of heart? To find out, Gino repeated the sunglasses study with 100 fresh volunteers, and a few important twists. This time, some of the recruits weren’t told anything about the sunglasses or whether they were genuine. They also had to complete a questionnaire that analysed how they felt about themselves, by asking them how far they agreed with statements such as “Right now, I feel as if I don’t know myself very well” or “Right now, I feel out of touch with the real me.”

All the volunteers did the same problem-solving test from the first experiment and they behaved much like the first lot did. Among those who thought they wore fake shades, 74% cheated, while just 30% of those who thought they wore real ones did. Out of those who weren’t told anything, 42% cheated. The questionnaires revealed that these differences were fuelled by the volunteers’ feelings about themselves. Those who wore the supposedly fake sunglasses felt personally less genuine than their peers. Because they felt like fakes, they were more likely to behave unethically.

The icing on this psychological cake is that people have no idea about this effect. When Gino asked 86 random students about the impact of fake goods, they didn’t predict any consequences on ethical behaviour. Even when asked about the experiments themselves, they didn’t think that the nature of the sunglasses would affect the volunteers’ propensity to cheat on their tests.

Gino fully admits that the real world is very different to laboratory settings but, nonetheless, she is concerned about the psychological impact of counterfeit goods at a societal level. As she says, “Individuals who buy counterfeits for themselves or give them to others may believe that they are simply getting similar products for less money, but in fact may be paying a price in terms of their long-term morality.“

Reference: Psychological Science

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Comments (19)

  1. Sam R.

    I’m skeptical about the external validity of this experiment. A major problem here is experimenter effects (in the broad sense).

    What is more important to the question of whether participants lie: (1) the participants knowingly wear fake designer apparel, which they had little involvement in acquiring or (2) the authority figure in the experiment distributes fake designer apparel?

    It seems more plausible to me that this experiment helps evoke dishonesty and perceptions of others’ dishonesty because… the experimenter associates herself with dishonesty!

  2. So I left out a part of the study because that section was getting a bit unwieldy, but it should answer your question.

    The first experiment was done in two ways. One is the way I described – the experimenters gave out fake or real sunglasses. The second is a bit different. There, the experimenters asked the volunteers to indicate their preferences between pairs of products, from clothes to fridges. They were then told that their choices indicated that they had a preference for authentic or counterfeit goods (although, in fact, this assignment was done randomly). Depending on this preference, they were then told to pick up a pair of sunglasses from one of two boxes (although, in fact, the sunglasses were all the same).

    This alternative method produced the same results as the first one, where the volunteers were just given glasses. I think this addresses your issue about the experimenter effects.

  3. woodsong


    The link to your article “Clean smells promote generosity and fair play; dark rooms and sunglasses promote deceit and selfishness” doesn’t work as it is. Your need to remove a date from the address.

    It’s an interesting study. I wonder if it applies to costume jewelry (plastic pearls and glass gemstones) as well?

  4. Trond Engen

    This is a boon for all us morally righteous! Cosmetic surgery, anyone?

  5. Sam R.

    Interesting. I agree that the results from the alternative protocol addresses my experimenter effect challenge.

  6. I think someone should check to see if this study was sponsored by the high-fashion industry. “Designer labels make you a better person! Science says so!” :)

  7. Evan Harper

    I would very much like to see this study replicated in a third-world country. As I understand it, people in a place like Indonesia tend to wear counterfeit Nikes as a fashion statement — everyone understands they’re counterfeit. So it would be really interesting to know if that difference would track.

  8. woodsong

    It would also be interesting if they conducted a survey (linked to the individual data) querying how the subjects feel about designer products.

    “Waste of money”? “Don’t care”? “Great”? “I’d buy them if I had more cash”? “I do buy them”?

    I’d like to see what the correlations are between different attitudes towards the products and the honesty study.

  9. Nathan Myers

    Whether Jennifer O. is right or not, I predict this experimenter will find it much easier to obtain grants for future work.

    None of the choices made by the subjects had any consequence, so the effect may have reflected their cynicism about the experiment itself. Since the choices were all visibly as fake as the glasses were said to be, this experiment might just be measuring the subjects’ attitude toward the experiment and the experimenter. This would be a real effect, but not the effect promoted in the headline, and not what will certainly show up in squibs in fashion magazines over the months to come.

    “Wearing fakes makes people more cynical about arbitary, artificial measures” doesn’t appeal to magazine editors quite as well as “You who buy designer stuff are better than them what don’t”.

  10. Nathan, your dislike for psychological research is blinding you to the nature of controlled experiments. If the “choices were all visibly as fake as the glasses were said to be” and the participants were showing “cynicism about the experiment itself”, tell me why there was a significant difference across the four separate conditions, given that everyone went through the same set-up. I can certainly sense “cynicism about the experiment” but not from the subjects! 😉

  11. Nathan Myers

    Actually, Ed, I do like good psychological research. It’s just really hard to do well. Socially relevant inferences don’t deserve less scrutiny than physical ones. Experiments don’t always answer the question the investigator meant to ask.

  12. Daniel J. Andrews

    Nathan…good point re: Experiments don’t always answer the question the investigator meant to ask.. However, as Ed points out, the experiments don’t support your alternate possible interpretations.

  13. I also think it would be interesting to repeat the experiment in a 3rd world country where counterfeit designer goods are common. I’m curious as well as to how this would compare if subjects had the option of no-name goods, rather than only the choice between real and fake designer.

  14. That, Lilian, is where it seems like this experiment fell down. I would have liked to see at least one or two other groups with people who weren’t wearing what they thought were either $300 sunglasses or knock-offs of them; what happens when you do the exact same experiments, but tweak is so that they’re just $50 sunglasses (ie not plastic/cheap, decent quality, but not designer).

    That would have been a nice icing to the project.

  15. Nathan Myers

    See, I see refinements akin to Kelly’s as essential to the project, if you hope to draw meaningful inferences. All we have so far is intriguing differences, but not the meaning behind them. When you only have intriguing differences, you have the basis for a paper, but not a press release.

  16. Another Ed

    I agree with Kelly and Nathan; more work definitely needs to be done. But the problem that I see is just that there is a correlation here and very little explanation of the causal mechanism of cheating on the tests.

    It might just be that those who wore fake sunglasses were, on the whole, people who would have cheated anyway, even with no eyewear in the mix. Plus, this study didn’t address the people who actively bought their knockoffs – just those who were given things and their behavior afterwards. So, there is little to go by in terms of how counterfeit goods affect people’s morality in the larger picture (i.e. those who know what they bought and the reasons for doing it). This is acknowledged, but might be the more important question.

    At any rate – an interesting read and definitely deserving of some more research.

  17. “It might just be that those who wore fake sunglasses were, on the whole, people who would have cheated anyway, even with no eyewear in the mix.”

    This could be true but that is what statistics are for. By the size of the effect and the difference in means I think this is very unlikely.

    “she is concerned about the psychological impact of counterfeit goods”

    Surely the greater worry is that more generally peoples emotions and actions are controlled by material possessions at all.

  18. Lotska

    >It would also be interesting if they conducted a survey (linked to the individual data) querying how the subjects feel about designer products.

    I agree with this. To use myself as an example; I care little about fashion and less about brand names (unless an actual signifier of quality, rather than design). In the rare case that I like an object from a designer and buy either a real version or a copy, how real others judged it to be has no bearing on me. In which case, would I have had either the ‘fake’ influence, being more likely to cheat, or the ‘real’ influence, being less likely to?

    (Minor note, why was there no comment on being more likely to answer honestly when being sure the sunglasses were real?)

    Surely a better indication of one immorality (as buying counterfeit designer goods aren’t necessarily this) would be giving them the chance to allow someone else to believe they were getting real, while believing it was fake. For example, giving one participant two pairs on sunglasses, and being told secretly that they had to give another, ignorant participant either the ‘fake’ or the real sunglasses.

  19. Turgut Can Erol

    IF the authors chose this specific setting to prove that; ” thinking about yourself as trying to cheat other people by wearing a fake symbol of high social status, unconsciously effects your preferences about cheating in short term ” then this should be replicated by changing the context and testing the same hypothesis in different societies.

    Because; real and fake designer sunglasses are distinct only to people who already have a notion of fashion, authenticity of a brand, brands in general, etc. and who have culture specific values attributed to the nuances formed by combination of these factors.

    Just because you have a control group doesn’t mean that your study represents the whole humanity.

    And then there’s another catch; what if the participants who believe they’re given CHEAP fake sunglasses are trying to maximize the money they earn by cheating, while the participants who feel richer because they are given EXPENSIVE sunglasses don’t feel the need to compansate for the sunglasses distribution?


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