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Marginal Dishonesty: The Adding-to-10 Task

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People inherently want to reap the benefits of cheating, even if they view themselves as honest.

For example, a salesperson making a commission on every car they sell might be tempted to cheat, reporting that they sold more vehicles than they actually did. On one hand, they’ll consider the costs of this action: whether they’ll be caught and punished by an employer.

However, external rewards—like how much extra money could be made—and internal rewards—whether they can still view themselves as an honest person—also influence this decision.

As a result of this interplay between costs and rewards, many individuals might opt to be marginally dishonest—noting that they sold only a few more vehicles, rather than the entire lot. This way, they still get the benefit of having some extra cash, but their moral self-image isn’t too adversely affected.

This video explores the relationship of just how much people cheat when a cash prize is rewarded as demonstrated by the Adding-to-10 task, in which two numbers that sum to 10 are identified from a given set.

In this experiment investigating honesty, participants are asked to complete math problems—the Adding-to-10 task—and depending on their group assignment, their answers are either graded by the researcher, in the case of the controls, or themselves—the experimental condition.

The math puzzles consist of 3 x 4 matrices containing numbers below 10. The trick is that only two of the values in a grid add to 10, and—to answer the problem—each component of this adds-to-10 pair must be circled.

Participants are given a booklet of 50 such matrices to solve as many as they can within 4 min, and told that random winners will receive $10 for every correct answer. Importantly, this potential cash prize is an external reward, which encourages dishonesty at a later stage.

For the control group, workbooks are collected and graded by the researcher immediately after time is up; there is no opportunity to inflate one’s results. In contrast, participants in the experimental condition correct their own work by listening to answers the researcher reads aloud.

Afterwards, they’re told to write down how many matrices they solved on a single piece of paper. It’s emphasized that only this sheet will be collected; the rest of the workbook can be thrown away.

The idea is that, since the accuracy of self-reported grades won’t be checked, there’s no cost to cheating. Thus, participants will be tempted to lie and claim that they solved more matrices than they actually did, all in the hopes that they’ll win a larger cash prize.

Here, the dependent variable for the experimental group is the number of matrices participants report they correctly answered. This can be compared to the number of matrices that were actually solved by control participants, which serves as a baseline value.

Based on previous research, it is expected that most experimental participants will inflate their results slightly, indicating they answered several more matrices than control individuals.

Such marginal dishonesty suggests that the internal reward of still being able to view oneself as a moral person prevents most people from lying excessively, and claiming that they solved all problems.

First, to calculate how many participants are needed, perform a power analysis. To begin, greet each one when they arrive. Then, provide them with a booklet of matrices, and explain the task.

Emphasize that to correctly answer a matrix, the two values in it that add to 10 must be identified and clearly circled. Also stress that a cash prize—$10 for every correct answer—will be awarded to two random winners once all of the data are collected.

Ensure that the participant understands the task, and then allow them to solve as many math problems as possible in 4 min.

When the time is up, have the participant put their pen down. For those in the control group, immediately collect their workbook. Check each of the matrices, and note how many were answered correctly.

For members of the experimental group, explain that they will be correcting their own work as matrix answers are read aloud. Then, proceed to recite the solutions.

Emphasize that the rest of the workbook won’t be collected, and should be thrown away when they leave. Then, tell the participant to write down their name and both the number of math problems they answered correctly and incorrectly. Afterwards, have them turn in this summary answer sheet.

Once the data have been collected, debrief each individual, and explain that this task is meant to investigate how the costs and benefits of cheating influence a person’s decision to be dishonest.

To analyze the data, calculate the number of correct answers and plot as a frequency distribution showing the percentage of participants by group.

Notice that individuals allowed to self-report their results indicated that they solved a significantly higher number of matrices compared to controls.

However, based on the overlap of the distributions, most participants in the experimental condition cheated just a little with marginal inflation, and only a small percentage cheated a lot.

This suggests that participants weigh two things in their decision to be dishonest: The first is the external reward of $10 per correct matrix, which results in their lying about the number of problems they solved.

The second is the internal reward of their moral self-image—still being able to view oneself as an honest person—that effectively caps this lie, and deters participants from claiming they solved the maximum number of problems.

Now that you’ve learned how the Adding-to-10 task can be used to explore the relationship between the extent of cheating and self-image, let’s take a look at other ways researchers are investigating dishonesty.

On one hand, some scientists are evaluating how moral priming—reminding an individual about honest concepts and actions—influences their willingness to cheat. Students were asked to sign an honor code contract, and afterwards were administered the Adding-to-10 task.

It was found that there was no significant difference between the number of matrices these experimental group participants noted they solved and data from control individuals.

This suggests that prompting individuals with their institution’s honor code reminds them to be moral, and decreases their tendency to cheat.

In addition, such reminders of honesty are being extended in other settings, like an office, where supplies often go missing. In this case, it’s been shown that if a mirror is placed in an area where individuals might be tempted to steal—such as in the supply closet—they are discouraged from taking home all the pens.

The idea is that, by observing their actions, the potential thief is made self-aware, and they realize that taking all of them might mean they’re not as honest as they’d like to believe.

You’ve just watched JoVE’s video on how the Adding-to-10 task can be used to better understand dishonesty. By now, you should know how to design the experiment, collect control and cheating data, interpret the results, and grasp how self-image—especially reminding an individual of their actions—could be used to discourage cheating in other applications.

Thanks for watching!

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