Tax collectors and insurance agencies trying to boost honest reporting could improve compliance simply by asking people to sign their forms at the beginning instead of at the end.
That's because attesting to the truthfulness of the information before a form is filled out tends to activate people's moral sense, making it harder for them to fudge their numbers after, says a new paper.
"Based on our previous research we knew that an honour code is useful, but we were wondering how much the location mattered," says Nina Mazar, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. Prof. Mazar co-wrote the paper with Lisa L. Shu of the Kellogg School of Management, Francesca Gino and Max H. Bazerman of Harvard Business School, and Dan Ariely of the Fuqua School of Business.
Their conclusions were supported in three separate experiments. The largest, involving more than 13,000 U.S. auto insurance policy forms with over 20,000 cars, showed customers who signed at the beginning on average revealed a 2,428 miles higher usage (3907 km) than those who signed at the end – more than a 10% difference. The researchers calculated that added up to a $48 or more differential in the two groups of customers' annual insurance premium per car.
Previous research has shown that people can use various forms of self-deception to avoid facing up to their own dishonest behaviour. But if their self-awareness is triggered before they are presented with an opportunity to lie, they are less likely to do it. Asking people to sign an honour code afterwards comes "too late," says the paper.
Where the signature is placed likely won't make a difference to individuals who have no intention of being honest, says Prof. Mazar. But given that in the U.S. there is a $345-billion gap between what people should be paying in taxes and what they claim, it's "unlikely" the gap is caused "by a few bad apples," she says.
"There are so many temptations around us," says Prof. Mazar. "Sometimes we do give in."
The paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, one of the world's most-cited multidisciplinary scientific serials.
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