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Discovery Channel Magazine, February 2013Illustration+of+an+Ace+of+Hearts+playing+card

Does this story sound familiar? A boy comes home from school with a note from his teacher saying that he stole a pencil from a classmate. His parents are furious: it’s wrong to steal, they tell him. “And besides,” says his dad. “If you needed a pencil, why didn’t you ask? I can bring you dozens of pencils from the office.”

We have some weird internal rules about cheating and dishonesty, about what’s acceptable and what’s not. “If we smirk at this story, it’s because we recognize the complexity of human dishonesty that is inherent to all of us,” says Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University in North Carolina and author of the book: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves. “We realize that a boy stealing a pencil from a classmate is definitely grounds for punishment, but we are willing to take many pencils from work without a second thought.”

Cheating takes many forms, from the brazen to the subtle, but behind it are some complicated behavioural prompts. Ariely has been studying and testing this for many years, and has reached a theory he calls fudging: basically, that most of us cheat to a limited degree. “The central thesis is that our behaviour is driven by two opposing motivations,” he says. “On one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honourable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves. On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money as possible. Clearly these two motivations are in conflict. How can we secure the benefits of cheating and at the same time still view ourselves as honest, wonderful people?”

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Chris Wright
Chris Wright
Chris is a journalist specialising in business and financial journalism across Asia, Australia and the Middle East. He is Asia editor for Euromoney magazine and has written for publications including the Financial Times, Institutional Investor, Forbes, Asiamoney, the Australian Financial Review, Discovery Channel Magazine, Qantas: The Australian Way and BRW. He is the author of No More Worlds to Conquer, published by HarperCollins.

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