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January 2013

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Q&A about Honesty in Business Schools With Dan Ariely

Ethics are a hot topic at business schools, which are dealing with issues ranging from plagiarism in admissions essays and incorporating ethics into their programs to considering the merits of an MBA Oath. Research by Dan Ariely, the James B Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, suggests honesty is highly contextual, both easier and harder to influence than one might suspect. Graduate Management News caught up with Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and, most recently, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, to get his thoughts about honesty and business school.   

Q: Your studies suggest that many people fudge the truth, but not so much that they think of themselves as dishonest. What can colleges and business schools do to prevent students from cheating?

A: Schools should be clear about their expectations. When no one tells you what you can and can’t do, it becomes easier to make those decisions for yourself. Also, I think it may not be clear what cheating is. People generally think it’s OK to tell “little white lies” socially to be polite or keep the peace. But in general, we don’t think this is OK in business. For students, the social and professional domains overlap, which make it more difficult to separate what is and isn’t acceptable. Students often live on campus where they go to class, which makes it like their workplace. Their friends are their colleagues, and their bosses–professors and TAs–are often their friends. All this blending can make the lines harder to draw.

Q: You talk about the social dimension of cheating – people are more likely to fudge if they believe others are fudging. What can schools do to reset those social norms?

A: Studies of honor codes suggest that it’s very difficult to create long-term cultural change when it comes to ethics. Students at schools with strict honor codes weren’t any more honest than schools without honor codes when given the same opportunities to stretch the truth. On the other hand, simply reminding students about the honor code, or even about morality, did make a difference.

Q: You found that placing the waiver asking people to attest that they’re being truthful at the beginning of an application rather than at the end helps make people more truthful. Do you think that would work for college and business school applications, which people don’t necessarily finish in one sitting?

A: Signing up front is better. Once people start answering more truthfully, there’s a chance that their next questions will be answered more truthfully, so there’s a self-fulfilling effect as well. It might be beneficial to have students sign a waiver that they’re being truthful every time they sign in (to work on the application).

Q: Your studies suggest that well-placed, well-timed reminders can go a long way toward getting people to behave honestly, but long-term change may be difficult. What can business schools do to impart ethics in their graduates?

A: Crash courses on morality probably aren’t enough to change behavior in the long term. On the other hand, people want to be honest, and incorporating moral reminders into situations that tempt people to be dishonest does make a difference.
Q: There has been a movement to get MBAs to take an oath to behave ethically, but your studies suggest that a one-time pledge might not make much difference in the long term. Is making such a pledge better than not making it? Can anything be done to make the oath lasting?

A: Signing an oath is better than not signing an oath. I think signing the oath in a public way, where other people know about it and think about it, is better than doing it in a private, secretive way. Making it into something observable, ceremonious, central, is useful. At the same time, I think a one-time pledge isn’t going to have maximum efficiency. So you can say, “Is it going to be sufficient?” And the answer is, probably not sufficient just by itself. But I think it’s going to be effective. There’s a difference. Plus, I think we don’t have to do it just once. We can think about how we can do it more frequently and remind them of their moral obligation.

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