The Fudge Factor

The Fudge Factor

An online Wired interview with Dan Ariely delves into Dan's corpus of research analyzing the basic questions of cheating who what where how and why a little more intensely than the average study. Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and MIT is also the author of the book Predictably Irrational, which shows even though people are irrational plenty of times, they are irrational in predictable and - dare we say it? -- downright dependable ways.

His experiments in the honest and dishonest behavior of students are a very interesting read. He maintains that the "common" knowledge that students cheat (or not) based on the likelihood that they will be caught and the punishment they would receive misses at least one piece of a crucial behavioral puzzle. Ariely deduces almost certainly that the equation is more complex, and directly involves the moral fiber of the subject much more than might be obvious at first blush.

He calls the missing piece a "fudge factor," which pertains not only to decisions to cheat or not, but, when choosing to cheat, exactly how much is ok and how much is too much for comfort.

He says, "We came up with this idea of a fudge factor, which means that people have two goals: we have a goal to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves, and we have a goal to cheat and benefit from cheating. And we find that there's a balance between these two goals. That is, we cheat up to the level that we would find it comfortable." So, we cheat but not too much: and only as much as we think we should. Yoikes. Now there's a concept...

Turns out this important fudge factor can be shrunk or increased fairly simply, and by changing the fudge factor you change the amount of cheating that seems acceptable to a given individual in a specific situation. That's a very interesting notion when you stop and think about it...

In one experiment Ariely had students try to complete 10 math problems in 5 minutes, which guaranteed that no student could complete all the questions. Students then graded their own papers when time was up. (There was a version of this experiment with cash left in a plate, and students rewarded their own scored performance.) Before the fudge factor, students cheated in small measure, but not to the point of claiming perfection or anything near it. (Interpretation:a little cheating is ok...)

Ariely sites he then had students recite the Ten Commandments before they took this test. His results revealed that " shrinks the fudge factor completely. It eliminates it. And it's not as if the people who are more religious or who remember more commandments cheat less. In fact even when we get atheists to swear on the Bible, they don't cheat afterwards. So it's not about fear of God; it's about reminding people of their own moral standards."

Note that in this particular exercise, students evaluated their own performance after choosing to cheat or not. With an appropriate fudge factor thrown in, they chose not to cheat even with the understanding nobody else would ever know if they cheated! That's pretty astounding stuff. The difference seems to be an appropriate reminder at the right time and place, not unlike the reminders over office copy machines to put blank paper in when you're done printing a large file; or, reminders to put change into the change cup after you take your morning coffee and donut from the break room. This is a very internal process I'm sure you'll agree.

Further, Ariely says "...people don't predict correctly what will drive our behavior and, as a consequence, we need to be more careful. What happens is you have intuitions and axioms about the world, and you assume they are perfectly correct. I think we should just start doubting our assumptions more regularly and submitting them to empirical tests."

"We understand cheating is bad, but we don't really understand where it's really coming from and how we can reduce it. The common theory says that all we need to do is to make sure we don't have bad apples and that the punishment is sufficiently severe. I think that's not the right approach. I think we need to realize that most people are not bad apples - we find very, very few people who really cheat in a big way - but a lot of people are cheating just by a little bit."

Who we are in the dark is who we are, indeed. I look forward to hearing more from Mr. Ariely. Read him yourself, here:

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