*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on ScienceDaily.
New research has found that adolescents who promised to be truthful were less likely to ‘cheat’ than those who did not, even when they could not be found out.
The study, of 640 10 to 14-year-olds in India, was designed in a way that meant it was impossible to tell who had and had not kept their promise — suggesting it is not just the fear of social retaliation that makes people stick to their word.
The team of researchers included two newly appointed members of the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth, and the study is published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.
The research used a series of experiments to test the effectiveness of inviting participants to promise to be truthful, with points that would later be converted into prizes as an incentive. For example, participants played a game in which they mentally chose a location in a box with 16 dice, shook the box, and recorded the number of the die falling in their chosen position. Prizes were proportional to their total reported scores across fifteen rounds. As the initial choice was private, opportunistic, and unobservable switching to a higher scoring die was possible.
Before the task, the adolescents received a choice to promise to be truthful or not. To make promising attractive for participants, those who did so received extra points. This gave even potentially dishonest participants an incentive to choose to promise. Control groups of participants could choose between the same incentives but did not have to promise.
The authors were able to measure the degree of dishonesty by comparing participants’ reported results to what would be statistically expected. Compared to control groups, promises in the study systematically lowered cheating rates, and the authors conclude that they could be a simple tool to reduce dishonest behavior.