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Would an honor code curb tax cheats?

Marketplace Staff Apr 15, 2008


Renita Jablonski: No doubt, many of us spent some part of the past few weeks going through receipts trying to figure out what tax deductions we could make. Commentator Dan Ariely thinks for many, the temptation to do a little creative accounting with those receipts is too tough to pass up.

Dan Ariely: Tax season is here and cheating is in the air. Let me tell you about an experiment we did at MIT on cheating with some unsuspecting students. We took a sheet of paper with 20 simple math problems that everybody could solve given enough time, but we didn’t give people enough time to solve them all. We handed the participants the quiz and told them that we would pay them a dollar for each correct answer. When five minutes were over, they handed the sheets back to us. On average, they solved four problems and we paid them four dollars each.

We then gathered another group for the same experiment, but this time, when the five minutes were up, we asked them to shred the piece of paper and simply tell us how many questions they solved correctly. Interestingly, on average, participants in this group said they solved about seven problems correct. So, what happened? Our students didn’t become smarter all of a sudden. Instead, they cheated. But it’s not as if a few students cheated a lot. What we found was that a lot of students cheated a little bit. Sounds a little bit like the fudging many of us do on our taxes.

But here is something else we did: We asked a third group of students to sign an honor code before solving the problems. When the five minutes were over, they shredded the piece of paper. But it turns out that these students who signed an honor code didn’t cheat at all. What does this tell us about the tax code? Well, imagine what would happen if instead of signing your tax form at the bottom, you signed a pledge up front: I declare that everything
I say here will be the truth, the only truth and nothing but the truth, so help me god and everybody else. And then, fill out your tax form. Would cheating be lower under that condition? I am not sure, but if I were the IRS, I would definitely try to find out.

Jablonski: Dan Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics at MIT and author of the book “Predictably Irrational.”

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