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Do the Right Thing

It’s not just how you say it. What you say matters too.

Christopher Bryan

“Liar, liar, pants on fire!” Name-calling is not nice. And resorting to schoolyard taunts is surely not the way to make the world a better place. But a little bit of ego sting may not be such a bad thing.

Reminding people of the link between behaving unethically and being an unethical person keeps people honest, suggests research led by UC San Diego’s Christopher Bryan, assistant professor of psychology in the Division of Social Sciences.

People want to think of themselves as ethical, according to many studies in moral psychology. And in order to engage in unethical behavior, people will often downplay their lapses and try to reconcile their not-so-great actions with their positive notions of themselves by engaging in self-talk along the lines of: “Well, a little bit of cheating – just here and there – doesn’t make me a cheater.”

So what would happen, wondered Bryan and colleagues at Stanford University and the London Business School, if people couldn’t let themselves off so easily?

They ran three experiments to find out. In each case, people stood to win real money – and cheating would increase their take-home payout. In each case, they couldn’t be individually identified or caught if they did cheat.  And in each case, simple changes in phrasing made all the difference.

References to “cheating” or the request “Please don’t cheat” had no effect at all – people cheated at the same rates as when cheating wasn’t mentioned at all. The request “Please don’t be a cheater” or even just the mention of the word “cheater,” on the other hand, reduced cheating to where it was statistically undetectable.

“People want to be good people,” Bryan said. “When they do bad things, it’s often because they don’t think of the implications of those things for whether they’re good people or not.”

While Bryan expected to find that the noun condition (“cheater”) – highlighting the identity associated with cheating – would curb cheating better than the verb condition, he said he was surprised to find it worked so thoroughly, to the point where the researchers couldn’t detect any evidence of cheating in that condition at all.

The subtle linguistic manipulation worked both when participants were interacting with another human being and when they just saw the appeals for honesty on their computer screens while participating online. Testing people in a private setting was particularly revealing, Bryan said, because people were then clearly dealing only with their own self-regard.

The results were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Bryan is excited by the findings because they point to easy and cheap ways of encouraging people to do the right thing.

The current work follows up on an earlier study of Bryan’s showing that mentions of “being a voter” are more effective than “voting” at getting people to go to the polls.  He is now collaborating with James Fowler, professor of political science and medical genetics, on a Facebook test of the “voter” message run on Election Day 2012.

Bryan is also now doing a study to see if kids are more helpful when asked “to help” or “to be a helper.”

In the meantime, he says, we may want to consider tweaking our messages to adults on littering and drunk driving. Instead of the usual admonitions to do or not to do, we might want to rephrase in terms of being: “Don’ be a litterbug.” “Don’t be a drunk driver.”