Want to know the best way to prevent people from cheating? Don’t try too hard to stop them.
A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that the worst thing an employer, a teacher, or a business can do is to set up an elaborate system to catch cheaters. People will inevitably rise to the challenge – not because they need the financial benefit of cheating but because they enjoy the high of beating the system. Take the challenge away and a lot of the cheating will vanish on its own.
The authors of the study—Nicole E. Ruedy at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, Celia Moore at the London Business School, Francesca Gino at Harvard Business, and Maurice E. Schweitzer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania—found that contrary to longstanding belief, people don’t necessarily feel guilty about cheating; in fact, they’re more likely to feel good about beating the system. This doesn’t apply to unethical behavior on a direct, personal level (such as stealing $5 from someone you know), but their research suggests it’s true when there is more distance between the cheater and cheated and a weaker sense of someone being hurt by the action. In one experiment, for example, more than two-thirds of the test subjects taking a math and logic test took advantage of opportunities to cheat, whether a monetary reward was attached to the outcome or not.
What lessons can be drawn from this? Employers who worry about workers stealing supplies and products are making a big mistake by imposing an elaborate system of supposed safeguards. That only heightens the emotional rewards of successful cheating, turning it into a game that more people are likely to play. A far more effective approach, the researchers suggest, is to stand back and let workers know they have your trust and confidence. That will take away much of the incentive. “To reduce cheating, I would change the culture, communicate your expectations and acknowledge that you’re trusting people to do the right thing,” Schweitzer told Knowledge@Wharton, the school’s online business analysis journal.
Schweitzer also recommends an amnesty program of some kind. Letting workers return stolen tools and other reusable goods is a surefire winner.