Cheat at golf, cheat at work

A hand poised to flick golf ball into hole.

Dan Ariely

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Here's a quick news item by way of introduction to our next story. New York City has a law that says restaurants have to post the calorie content for each item on their menus -- on the theory that that'll encourage people to order healthier meals. Research out today shows that theory has some flaws in it. Like, people don't actually make better choices. Even with the calorie count posted, diners picked meals that were worse for them. Little white lies to ourselves to make it easier to order the Big Mac, I suppose.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely is back talking about a different set of white lies and what they might say about the way we do business. Dan, good to have you here again.

DAN ARIELY: Nice to be here.

Ryssdal: I hate to say this, but we're back to one of your favorite subjects: cheating.

ARIELY: Well, you don't need to call it my favorite topic, but it definitely is something I'm interested in.

Ryssdal: Well, all right, well, do tell here. You've got golf and cheating. Is that the score?

ARIELY: I thought about golf and cheating because it looked to me like golf is something that actually could teach us something about the business world. And think about it. Golf is a team effort. I mean, you play with other people, but it's also an individual endeavor. Everybody basically gets to control themselves and decide what rules to follow and what rules not to follow. And golf, much like accounting and other things, have lots and lots of rules. So I was curious about what people cheat in golf, and how much they cheat.

Ryssdal: All right, first let me preface this by saying we will get e-mails from many, many golfers who say the joy and the glory of that sport is that golfers follow the rules. They are honorable law-abiding people who never, ever cheat, and that's the principle of the game.

ARIELY: Uh, yes...

Ryssdal: I'm just saying.

ARIELY: I'm sure you'll get calls like this. But nevertheless we got a golf company to help us out, and they sent e-mails to their users. And we got about 17,000 people to respond. And first of all, as you would expect, they admitted to cheat less than they thought other people cheat. It was curious to see different the patterns of cheating. So first of all there's something called a mulligan. And a mulligan is the idea that you hit the first shot, and it doesn't work very well, and you get a do-over, as the kids say, right? You start again. And what's interesting is that people feel very good about taking a mulligan on the first hole of the day; they don't feel very good about taking it on the ninth hole. Another interesting thing that we find is that people have a relatively easy time writing on their scorecard a different number than the number of strokes they really took.

Ryssdal: Yeah, because nobody is watching, right?

ARIELY: But once they write these numbers down, they have a harder time adding it up wrongly.

Ryssdal: Right, right. It's easier to cheat in the moment then?

ARIELY: It's easier to cheat in the moment, and it's easier to cheat when there's like no traces for this cheating.

Ryssdal: These 17,000 people, Dan, did they list occupation when they responded to this survey? Do we know how the accountants did, and how the doctors did?

ARIELY: We do know how they did. First of all, it turns out that people in the pharmaceutical industry cheated a lot, but they also said their industry is the most honest that there is. There are some other interesting comparisons. For example, if you look at law enforcement, education and government, people in those three industries basically cheat on average, as do people in sales, marketing, advertising and so on. But the people in law enforcement, education and government think that they're the most honest, while the people in sales and marketing and advertising cheat just the same but they think they come from industries that are much less honest.

Ryssdal: Bring this back to the workplace for me then. What does this tell us about the way things get done in this country, and how we actually do and manage our economy?

ARIELY: First of all, I think cheating in golf is kind of a good example for how we think about day-to-day tasks. The fact that people can take a mulligan or how they can cheat on golf, I think tells us that's there a lot of corner bending that we see in the business world. And what I worry about is that once we start in this path of immorality, even with small bending of rules and cutting corners here and there, that this tendency could become bigger and bigger and really a part of the collective understanding of how business is actually done.

Ryssdal: Dan Ariely teaches behavioral economics at Duke University. His book is called "Predictably Irrational." Dan, thanks a lot.

ARIELY: My pleasure.

Ryssdal: Hey Dan, wait, before I let you go. Who is the most honest? Do we know that?

ARIELY: Well, the most honest quite surprisingly were the people from the insurance industry.

Ryssdal: Really?

ARIELY: Could you believe it? Yeah, they cheated...it turns that they thought they were not particularly honest as an industry, but in our sample they cheated the least.

Ryssdal: So what does that tell you?

ARIELY: Well, it does tell me I'm having a renewed belief in my insurance agent right now. Or maybe it tells us that the people who from AIG have left the market are not playing golf right now.

Ryssdal: Oh man. Oh my goodness.

ARIELY: That's cruel.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

Dan Ariely

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