Bioethics Blogs

Does the Thought of Money Make Us Dishonest?

Here is a game you can’t lose. You flip a fair coin ten times and every time it comes up heads, you get $20. Better yet, I won’t even watch you flip the coin, but instead will trust whatever you tell me about the number of times the coin comes up heads versus tails.

Would you be willing to play that game? And if you did play it, would you exaggerate the number of times the coin came up heads?

That was the question Alain Cohn and coauthors asked in a recent study. Cohn made sure participants realized the researchers wouldn’t be able to figure out the actual outcomes of the coin tosses. In other words, participants knew they could cheat and get away with it. In fact, for every person participating in the study, the researchers had no way of knowing whether or not they cheated. Yet the researchers not only uncovered significant cheating, but also discovered that the participants – bankers – were significantly more likely to cheat when they were reminded of their profession.

Since Cohn didn’t know the outcome of the coin tosses, how did he know whether participants cheated? He assessed cheating across the group of participants, rather than for specific people. The laws of probability show that when 200 people flip a fair coin 10 times, heads should come up 50% of the time, on average. The laws of probability also enabled Cohn to map out how often all 10 flips are likely to be heads, or how often nine tosses are likely to come up heads, etc..

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.