The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance

Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely
Journal of Marketing Research (JMR)
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Executive Summary
It is almost impossible to open a newspaper or turn on the television without being exposed to a report of dishonest behavior of one type or another. From returning worn clothes (“wardrobing”), to insurance and tax frauds, to stock embezzlements and employee theft, the marketplace is full of situations in which behaving dishonestly pays. Conversely, people typically also think of themselves as honest and moral human beings. How can this tension be resolved?

The common approach to deceit is based on external cost–benefit analysis as the way people make decisions about dishonesty. Consequently, this approach assumes no tension between beliefs and actions; that is, people only care about their personal gain from behaving dishonestly (benefit) and about the likelihood of being caught and the magnitude of punishment if caught (cost). In contrast, the current research shows that people behave dishonestly enough to profit but honestly enough to ensure themselves of their own integrity. On the basis of these findings, the authors develop a theory of self-concept maintenance that includes both external and internal rewards as an input into people’s trade-off equation. The idea is that a little bit of dishonesty can provide some benefits without spoiling a positive self-view.

The authors focus on two mechanisms that allow for such self-concept maintenance: inattention to moral standards and categorization malleability. Six experiments provide support for this theory and offer practical applications for curbing dishonesty in everyday life. The authors find that reminding people of their own moral standards through religious reminders (recalling the Ten Commandments) or commitment reminders (signing an honor code) decreases dishonesty. Conversely, they find that introducing a medium, such as tokens, increases the flexibility of interpreting behavior as something other than dishonest, thus increasing dishonesty. The authors further find that even though people are aware of having “overreported” their performance, they do not report any change in their self-concept in terms of being an honest and moral person. Finally, they find that though within the realm of experimental contexts, people are sensitive to these two mechanisms, but they are insensitive to the amount of money they can gain, the probability of getting caught, and social norms. In other words, the cost–benefit trade-off that governs dishonest behavior is internal and revolves around maintaining an honest self-view.

Given that these findings stem from experiments conducted not with criminals but rather with students at elite universities—people who are likely to play important roles in the advancement of this country and share general familiarity with most people—the results suggest that policy should go beyond the typical tools (the probability of catching dishonest people and the magnitude of punishment) used to curb externally driven dishonesty. The results of the honor code, Ten Commandments, and token manipulations are promising because they suggest subtle, psychological remedies that could prove more effective in curbing dishonesty in everyday life.

Nina Mazar is an Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. This article was written while she was a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and the Media Lab. With her focus on behavioral economics, she investigates consumer behavior and how it deviates from standard economic assumptions. In addition, she studies decision-making mechanisms and the implications of psychology for policy across a wide range of applications. For more information, see

On Amir is an Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego. He received his PhD in Management Science and Marketing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He studies the behavioral effects of pricing and promotions, the evolution and dynamics of preferences and choices, and the mechanisms underlying consumer decision making. He has published in Journal of Marketing Research and in Marketing Science.

As a behavioral economist, Dan Ariely’s interests span a wide range of daily behaviors, such as buying (or not), saving (or not), ordering food in restaurants, pain management, procrastination, dishonesty, and decision making under different emotional states. His experiments are consistently interesting, amusing, and informative, demonstrating profound ideas that fly in the face of common wisdom. He holds a joint appointment between Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Program in Media Arts and Sciences and Sloan School of Management. He is the principal investigator of the lab’s eRationality group and a visiting professor at Duke University. Dan is also president elect of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. For more information, see

J Marketing Research, Volume 45, Number 6, December 2008
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Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely
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