Would you steal a buck? How about a can of soda?

April 14, 2008

It's been a long road from being engulfed in flames in an explosion in Israel to leaving dollar bills in dorm refrigerators at MIT. But in an odd way, it's all connected.

Unexpected and surprising connections are at the heart of the fascinating research conducted by Dan Ariely, who holds joint appointments in MIT's Media Lab and Sloan School of Management. His studies of behavioral economics have demonstrated in a variety of creative ways that people often make decisions that seem to defy logic--but they do so in very predictable, consistent ways.

Hence the title of Ariely's new book, "Predictably Irrational" (HarperCollins), which catapulted onto The New York Times' bestseller list upon its Feb. 19 debut and has stayed there ever since.

Take those dollar bills as an example. Ariely has been fascinated with the way people rationalize their decisions about what is ethical or not. The small-scale tests he has carried out, though they involve only a few dollars, reveal patterns of thought that may be relevant to understanding how the leaders of a company such as Enron would engage in criminal activity involving hundreds of millions of dollars.

Here's how the test worked: Ariely and his students went around and left six-packs of Coke in randomly selected dorm refrigerators all over campus. When he checked back in a few days, all of the Cokes were gone.

But when he later placed plates of six loose dollar bills in those same refrigerators, not a single bill was missing when he checked back. Even though the value was comparable--and thus the situations were supposed to be equivalent--people responded in opposite ways. Why is that?

Ariely says that when he started reading about the Enron case, he was struck by what he calls some bizarre contradictions. "They didn't seem like career criminals," he says of the Enron officials. "They gave money to charity. This is not the image of people who are purely evil." And there were 10,000 people working for the company; obviously those were not all bad people. "Could it be that there was something in the structure of the company that allowed normal people to act this way?"

So Ariely, now the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the eRationality Group at the Media Lab, started his small, simple tests of people's ethical decisions in everyday situations. The results, as with Cokes and dollars, were often quite striking.

For example, he gave people a test consisting of very easy math questions--but without giving them nearly enough time to finish. On average, people got four right out of 20. Then he had people take the test, score it themselves, shred the answer sheet and tell him how they did. Suddenly the average jumped to seven.

He repeated the experiment, paying people according to how many right answers they got. Same result. "Everybody cheated, but just a little." Even when there was no chance of getting caught--the evidence was shredded and participants paid themselves from a jar of money with over $100--nobody claimed 20 right answers. They just padded their results by a bit.

But then he tried another variation: Before doing the test, he asked one group of subjects to name 10 books they had read in high school. He asked another group to name as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember. The group that listed the books followed the same pattern as the earlier test--they all cheated a little. But the group that named the commandments was different: Nobody cheated at all!

"Just the act of contemplating morality eliminated cheating," Ariely explains.

Though Ariely's book is often compared to the bestseller "Freakonomics"--both certainly share a quirky, hands-on approach to questions of everyday behavior--he says that in fact his research is almost the opposite of that book's. Those researchers found cases where people's behavior, even in seemingly irrational contexts, was perfectly rational and followed established economic principles. Ariely's work, by contrast, shows the consistently irrational ways people behave in situations where traditional economics predicts they would follow a course of rational self-interest.

Ariely's fascination with why people behave as they do and how they justify their own actions initially grew out of his own personal experience of suffering. He grew up in Israel, and at the age of 18 was in a bomb blast that burned 70 percent of his body. He spent three years in a hospital going through an excruciating recuperation that involved a daily hour-long ordeal of removing bandages from his burned flesh.

He was convinced that there was a better way of doing this process--starting with the most painful ones first, and taking frequent breaks to rest up. But the nurses insisted on the opposite--no breaks, and building up to the worst areas. After his discharge, Ariely decided to do some research on the question. The study, in which volunteers were subjected to controlled pain in different ways, confirmed that his approach was better.

"The nurses were wrong," he says. "But why were they wrong, when they had lots of experience and good intentions?" The question caused him to begin a lifelong exploration of situations "where good intentions and experience are not enough," and things somehow end up going wrong.

And so he began doing empirical testing of how people make choices. "MIT as a whole has a very applied perspective to the world," he says. Working here, "I fell in love with the experimental method."

Ariely explains that the ultimate goal of all of his research is a simple and earnest one.

"Behavioral economics can give kind of a depressing view" of how people make decisions, he says, but it can also be used to improve the way people make choices. Using these principles wisely, he says, "we might be able to design a better world."

Source: MIT

Explore further: Why technology makes us dishonest—ways to reduce cheating at self-service checkouts

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4 / 5 (3) Apr 14, 2008
Perhaps the reason why the nurses work their way up to the worst areas is that by the time they get to them, they've been desensitized to the gobs of decaying flesh. Thus, less mental pain for them.
5 / 5 (2) Apr 14, 2008
I appreciate the approach and hope he discovers some insights. It's worth pursuing.

I like to think these things through myself, and have some other observations:

1. Regarding the nurses, I believe it's likely that they are simply following the rules laid out. They are told that the procedure is X, and so they do it. Their assumption is that it's already been worked out as the best method and they do not question it. Secondly, if they were to change the procedure on their own (and for what benefit, they wonder), and if things did not work out right, it would be their job on the line. So, maintain status quo and avoid crime/punishment scenario.

2. Why did they steal the cokes, but not the dollars? I think they figured the dollars were out of place and were a plant. Nobody leaves dollars in the fridge. Those MIT guys also know that people put chemicals on bills to help identify the thief. So, they avoided the obvious plant. If the dollars were left sitting nearby those refrigerators, they would have been gone. It wasn't a matter of value, it was a matter of whether they thought they'd be caught or not.

3. The question/answer scenario is fun. Again, people padded their answers a little, because they could get away with a small and seemingly realistic lie. They would be singled out with a blatant lie of 20. Frankly, I'm surprised at how many did cheat. Perhaps some didn't want to look dumb when others were claiming 7 completed. Now, if everyone were left in the room with that $100, at least one person would have waited around until everyone else had left and pocketed the remaining cash.
not rated yet Apr 14, 2008
What cultivated the mindset of the employees of Enron was the shift from CEO Ken Lay to CEO Jeff Skilling. Ken Lay fostered trust amongst his employees and genuinely cared for them. He had a near photographic memory and made sure every employee did his/her job and was transparent about their work.

However, Skilling established a system where the bottom of 20% or so were fired every few months, whether or not they were doing a good job. Instead of encouraging employees to work hard and trust the company, the employees were constantly fearing for their jobs. To compete with each other, the game turned into a political game with each person trying to undermine everyone else.

In an environment where no one trusted anyone else and had constant manuevering to stay on top, the employees become numb to cut-throat tactics and were willing to do anything to be employed.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 14, 2008
I think the convienence of having a can of coke available when you're thristy is more valuable than the dollar left there.
4 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2008
You could look at it, as most people are mostly honest. The food thing has been done time after time. For some reason a significant portion of the population will steel food as long as it can be eaten on the spot, but if it is frozen or needs preparation they will not touch it.

I find it unfortunate that corporate America has in large part degraded to; lets try to screw the company as bad as they are screwing me. How many people steal from their employer because they feel the employer is not treating them fairly. If employers would treat their employees better, employees would be far more likely to do the same.
not rated yet Apr 15, 2008
haha, just reading this made me think of my original plan of rubber cementing a 25 cent coin on to a public table, in college.

To observe whether people would attempt to take the coin, then to observe how long it would take for them to give up hahaha...in the whole situation i would sit a table away and watch :P

Of course, all of it would be for fun, cynical isn't it haha to watch someone waste their time...and i get to waste time watching their actions... haha it's like watching TV, but it's real hahaha!!
not rated yet Apr 15, 2008
To answer the proposed question, If it was some random person who came to my room and left it in there then YES! of course i would take, not just the soda but the money as well.

If it was me entering someone else's room, then i would not.

The way it was phrased it seems like it was a roommate situation, if there is a mutual agreement then yea no crap the drink would be gone but the money wouldn't. But i would say wtf why would he leave money on a plate in the fridge...soda has a significance of quenching thirst. One Dollar bill is just monetary value. It's how amusement parks operate. They basically rob you by putting ridiculous prices on drinks.
not rated yet Apr 16, 2008
if someone asked you to list all the commandments you could REMEBER, how could you cheat???? how would you list what you couldn't remember?
not rated yet Apr 17, 2008
Is it me or does the coke/dollar experiment seem juvenile and amateurish? Stupid students. I woulda taken the money since from the information given it was a common area. If no one says that they lost some money I'm a few bucks richer If someone says they lost money then I give it to them and I have lost nothing. Better a chance at gain then none. Stupid Students. I shall dub thee "Student/Nurse Study Bias"

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