Cecil Bohanon and John Horowitz: You’re more likely to cheat for charitable causes

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Do people tend to cheat more when they are trying to make money for themselves or when they are trying to advance a charitable cause?

Psychologists have an experiment that address this question. A participant rolls a die 20 times. Before each roll, the participant chooses bottom or top. She wins, in dollars, the number displayed on the side she chose when the die lands. A standard die has top-bottom pairings of 1- 6, 2-5 and 3-4. If the participant chose bottom and 6 came up on top, she would win $1 since 1 was on the bottom. Suppose 100 people each roll the die 20 times, making 2,000 rolls. We’d expect half the rolls, or 1,000, to yield the higher payoffs: $6, $5 or $4. The other half would yield the lower amounts: $1, $2 or $3.

In round 2, participants reveal whether they chose the top or the bottom only after each roll. What happens? People (not so) mysteriously become “very lucky,” especially with the 1-6 combination. At the extreme, all the 2,000 die rolls would be 6, 5 or 4! In actual experiments, people do not lie quite that much. Typically, they get the higher payoff, about 13 or 14 out of the 20 rolls, disproportionately with a 1-6 roll. People cheat—not all people, not all the time, but with consistent regularity.

In round 3, as in round 2, the choice of top or bottom is revealed after the roll. However, in this case, the money goes to a charitable cause of the player’s choice. Duke professor and behavioral economist Dan Ariely reports that “people cheat more” in this case.

Interestingly, Ariely’s comment is from his role in the 2019 HBO film “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” about the rise and fall of Theranos Corp. and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. Theranos claimed to have a technology that could make blood tests readily available and less costly and intrusive. The claims were fraudulent. Holmes is in jail. The film reveals that Holmes professed an outsized interest in improving the world. One might conclude that her “higher” calling was part of why she felt justified in her deception. After all, it was for a good cause. As Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan once noted: “The licentious sinners we can control; the saintly ascetics may destroy us.”•

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Bohanon and Horowitz are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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