Trust Me

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“[M]any honest people will cheat” was the conclusion Duke behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely reached based upon experiments he designed to test people’s integrity.  At the same time, the author of Predictably Irrational also found that when those same people are reminded of morality at the moment of temptation, they are “much more likely to be honest.” This quirk of human psychology has big implications for how we encourage ethical behavior by those with public responsibilities.

Politicians, lobbyists, and many others are required to file reports on everything from travel expenses to campaign finances to conflicts of interest. In many instances, government devotes few or no resources to enforcing those rules. Enforcement should be stepped up, but in this era of tight budgets, it is fiscally prudent to do everything we can to make sure that the filings are accurate in the first place.

In Prof. Ariely’s experiments, the trick to improving compliance came from requiring participants to sign a short ethics statement before starting the task. By contrast, many governmental forms have either an ethics pledge as the final step in completing a form, or don’t have any such requirement at all. A minor change in these forms could have a major effect on completeness and accuracy.

Cass Sunstein, the head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, an office that reviews all collections of information by the Federal Government, co-authored the book Nudge, which argues that “setting default options, and other similar seemingly trivial menu-changing strategies, can have huge effects on outcomes.” Adding a little nudge towards honesty by adding an ethics pledge up front could have a big impact.

There’s a second nudge that could add additional benefits. Sunstein explains that social influences can have powerful effects. For example, if you ask people the day before an election whether they intend to vote, the probability of their voting increases by 25%. Similarly, if you draw public attention to what many people are doing, you increase the odds that others will behave in the same way. One easy (and virtually cost-free) technique to increase compliance with filing requirements could be an automatic email to public officials reminding them to file their forms on time. Included in the email should be a statement about how many other public officials have already filed their forms. Another technique is to track online the numbers of forms filed, so that everyone can see the compliance rate.

These steps alone won’t resolve the ethical dilemmas facing government and the entities it regulates. There’s still a need for better reporting requirements, better enforcement, and so on. But these few steps may help separate the honest cheaters from the real crooks.

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