Research undertaken by Effron, Bryan and Murnighan takes a deep and extensive look at when we are ethically at our most vulnerable to be dishonest. It was submitted for publication in March 2015. The researchers specifically excluded certain well-known explanations for cheating behaviour in order to get greater clarity on the reasons for their findings.
Their conclusion is that cheating takes place more often at the end of a series of opportunities rather than being spread evenly or randomly across the series. Viewing a decision as the last in a series can thus lead to increased unethical behaviour, with participants in the study having been more likely to lie for financial benefit when it was their last opportunity to do so rather than earlier in the series. Cheating was three times more likely to take place at the end of a series.
When we know that we have come to the end of a series, or episode, or are completing an activity, we are more likely to deliberately deceive others for our own benefit. When people do not know when the end point of a series offering cheating opportunities is, they are less likely to cheat at the end. But the more certain we are that we are faced with the last opportunity, the greater is the likelihood of cheating. Due to research limitations, the researchers can confirm that this phenomenon (“cheating at the end effect”) is true only in a relatively short series of cheating opportunities (less than twenty opportunities). Although the study focused mainly on enrichment benefits, the implications probably are also true for other benefits.
In our daily life there are many examples of how we end up in ethical quandaries which pit self-interest against the obligation to uphold moral principles. When a person bills a client and knows that it is the last invoice, the likelihood of over-charging the client is at its highest. For example, over-reporting the length of time worked, increases at the end of a series of reporting. Students tend to cheat more in their last assignment of the year. The same may be true in competitions and sports events. When employees know how long their supervisor will be absent, the possibility of sneaking out of work early is bigger on the last day before the supervisor is due to return.
Indications are that the temptation to cheat is stronger at the end of a series of choices when the opportunities to benefit (or enrich) ourselves have come to an end, rather than earlier, when such opportunities are as plentiful. It would seem that the impending scarcity of more opportunities heightens the temptation to cheat and shifts the balance in favour of cheating. This cheat-at-the-end phenomenon is most likely when the set of opportunities to cheat feels limited. While the temptation to cheat grows stronger at the end of a series, however, the moral obligation to resist temptation does not increase to the same extent.
Research into the reasons for this behaviour point strongly towards what is called “the role of anticipatory regret”. Cheating may cause guilt, but forgoing a benefit could spark even more regret. We anticipate that we will regret not taking the opportunity to benefit from the situation. Lost opportunities seem to be a strong driving force for the feeling of regret. The need to avoid feeling regret influences behaviour in financial and negotiation decision-making and determines risk-taking behaviour.
In short: anticipatory regret can help us make more careful decisions. But there also seems to be a darker side to anticipatory regret. Indications now are that anticipatory regret can also promote unethical behaviour.
People seek to balance their obligation to follow ethical principles with the temptation to benefit, but at the end anticipatory regret emerges – which seems, for some people, to be too strong to ignore. While anticipatory guilt can inhibit unethical behaviour, anticipatory regret can have a negative influence since it possible that it can increase unethical behaviour, particularly at the end of a series of ethical quandaries. Anticipatory regret is at its greatest when honesty fails to capture tangible benefits.
The implication of the findings is that behaviour should be monitored more closely towards the end of a series of decisions. Reports filed, documents completed, and assignments handed in at the end of a period should be scrutinised more thoroughly. An unfortunate result may be that organisations and employers may start to hide the real end point to avoid this result – but this may create an atmosphere of uncertainty and influence worker morale negatively. Positive incentives not to cheat at the end should rather be considered.
Anticipatory regret takes place at all levels of society, also influencing the lives of politicians and administrators. The 2016 local government elections will be the end of tenure for many councillors. It can realistically be expected that for some, the anticipatory regret of not getting what they want from the system could heighten the possibility of them taking unethical decisions to benefit themselves. Councillors in marginal positions may be under great internal emotional pressure to act unethically in order to avoid regretting later that they did not use the system maximally to their own benefit. Be aware!
“We must use time wisely and forever realise that the time is always ripe to do right”. Nelson Mandela
Frederik B O Nel (Pastoral Therapist; Life Coach)