Winning a competition predicts dishonest behavior in the future

Researchers hypothesized that there is something in the social context that causes some people to measure success in a way that promotes dishonesty.

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February 4, 2016 03:24
2 minute read.
A scientist prepares protein samples for analysis in a lab

A scientist prepares protein samples for analysis in a lab at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton. (photo credit: REUTERS)

With a former prime minister about to go to jail, following a long line of former ministers and other senior officials, Ben-Gurion University and Hebrew University researchers have used game theory to try to find out why successful and distinguished politicians become corrupt.

Their study, led by Dr. Amos Schurr of BGU’s Faculty of Business and Management and Prof. Ilana Ritov of HU’s School of Education and the Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality, was just published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. It examined the behavior of 46 university students aged 21 to 44 who were asked to play dice.

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They hypothesized that there is something in the social context that causes some people to measure success in a way that promotes dishonesty.

At the end of the experiments, they concluded that defeating one counterpart in a competitive setting provokes dishonest behavior in unrelated situations.

“Life, both personal and professional, is beset with challenges and rivalries,” they wrote. “Success is often determined by one’s ability to outstrip the competition.

Although competition motivates individuals to work harder to obtain better outcomes, it may also lead to deleterious effects, such as increasing dishonesty in pursuit of competitive advantage and decreasing pro-social behavior.”

To test this hypothesis, they invited participants to the lab and let them participate in two ostensibly unrelated experiments. In the first they asked the participants to compete in throwing two dice; in the second they let half the participants (winners and losers alike) throw the dice and were told they could collect money in an amount corresponding to the number that came up on the dice. The rest of the money was transferred to another participant who did not throw the dice.

Because only those who threw the dice could see the outcome, they could steal money without being caught. If everyone was honest, the mean claim should be seven. If the mathematical mean is greater than seven, it was a sign someone was cheating. Schurr and Ritov found that those who won the competition over-claimed and practically stole money from a fellow student, while those who lost did not.

Follow-up experiments showed the effect holds only when beating other contestants. For example, when participants had to recall a personal achievement of achieving a set goal or actually meeting a fixed standard, honesty prevailed.

These findings suggest that the way in which people measure success affects their honesty, they wrote. When success is measured by social comparison, as is the case when winning a competition, dishonesty increases. When success does not involve social comparison, as is the case when meeting a fixed, well-defined standard or recalling a personal achievement, dishonesty decreases.

The significance of this research is twofold. First, “honesty and dishonesty are essentially social decisions.”

Prior to this study, most research on ethicality revolved around personal decisions, while leaving the social context out. The current study contributes to research on ethicality by testing ethicality in a social context.

Second, the methodology used to test the hypothesis is also unique and sheds new light on contestants’ ethicality after the competition ends, they said.

“Although we know much about contestants’ behavior before and during competitions, we know little about contestants’ behavior after the competition has ended.

A greater tendency toward unethicality on the part of winners, as our findings indicate, is likely to impede social mobility and equality,” they concluded.


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