Nina Mazar, Behavioral economist, Real Leader Interview 32

Nina Mazar was featured in Dan Ariely’s book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone Especially Ourselves and I was compelled to reach out to her to find our more about her research. Her work and the book taught me many things about how we are comfortable with lying/cheating on a regular basis. We talked about all that and much more. Do read on!
About Nina Mazar
Nina  Mažar (Mazar) is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Rotman. With her focus on behavioural economics, she investigates consumer behaviour and how it deviates from standard economic assumptions. In addition, she studies moral decision-making and its implications for policy. Her research topics range from irrational attraction to free products, the paradoxes of green behaviour to temptations to be dishonest. Nina has received various honours and awards, among others the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research. Prior to completing her PhD, Nina was a management consultant working in the UK and Germany.
Rohan: First we would like to ask about your story and about why you ended up doing what you are doing?
Nina: I came to MIT in 2001 to visit Dan, this is when I got to know Dan Ariely. He enrolled me in a bunch of projects whether it’s about handing out things for free and seeing how big the lines get or about dishonest students and finding out how we can make them more honest. It’s mainly through a lot of inspiring conversations with Dan. He is an amazing person full of ideas and creativity.
Around the time of 2003 and 2004, the Enron scandal happened. That’s when we thought that it was time to start focusing on dishonesty and truly understand what makes people cheat. It wasn’t possibly what we were witnessing on the media about those events. Just a few people did not possibly commit the events entirely. There are good people and then there are really bad people. We hope that the group of bad people is rather small.
If you want to explain the kind of dishonesty that we were observing it seems more likely that people like you and me do tend to fall off the wagon and engage in some criminal transgressions. The data was raw and we wanted to understand how we struggle in our daily lives with the goal on one hand to be honest and think about ourselves as honest human beings and witnessing these events as well. What are ways we give in and how can we control that?
Rohan: So did you already study psychology from Germany, I know you are from Germany..
Nina: Ah you want to go further! I studied Business Administration in Germany, completed my Masters in it. I was a consultant for two years. During one of my consulting jobs, I found myself to be a bit bored. I realized I was always more interested in theory, so I decided to try and apply for a PhD.
I applied for a PhD program at the same university where I did my masters. They accepted me and I signed up for the PhD in Business Administration in Consumer Behaviour. I had been working on that for almost a year that time. It was quite cool to study consumer behaviour online and offline. My advisor told me that he would be able to help me very little because it was not his research area. He further told me to reach out to the people whose papers I was reading.
One of those papers I had read was by Dan Ariely. So I e-mailed him introducing myself. I told him that I was a PhD student in Germany and that I needed some advice on my dissertation. I told him that I found his work was relevant. I asked him if I could come by for a week and explain my work to get his thoughts. I was very lucky that Dan accepted me and asked me to come over.
By the way, I had no idea what MIT was and I had never been to the US as well. That was a good thing because if I had known I wouldn’t have had the courage to send out that e-mail. After going there, meeting the people and working with Dan I figured that the place was actually quite good. Once I was there it was so easy to see what people were working on and how smart they were.
I was lucky to be accepted as Research Assistant and PhD student to Dan’s colleague. After that I became a RA of Dan’s. From 2002 to 2007 I was first a visiting PhD student and then I went back to Germany to defend my dissertation and came back to MIT as a post-doc.
Rohan: Now you are a professor at Toronto?
Nina: That’s right, I am an assistant professor at the University of Toronto since 2007 in the Rotman school. I am in marketing doing consumer behaviour, behavioural economics, judgment and decision-making – everything when it comes to human decision-making. I research on how certain factors influence us and how some of these are doing so without our conscious understanding; how we can change the environment to change our decision making for the better of ourselves and the society.
Rohan: Through Dan’s books I am always reminded of how fallible we are. And that we try to find reason/rationale for everything we do. For someone who has studied this, what are some these studies that have given you the best of learnings and maybe changed your life?
Nina: I am not sure if they are changing my life. But I can see these experiments at work. I can see what ways we are fallible. But I am not walking around with a constant reminder of these findings about our weaknesses. I am human like anybody else and even though I have all this knowledge I am making the same mistakes that you or anybody else is making.
Rohan: One of my biggest conclusions from Dan’s book is that the more you are aware of these patterns the less susceptible you are to make these transgressions.
Nina: Say we define transgressions as immoral transgressions. What we have found is that when people are more aware of their moral norms and standards, it is much harder to give into temptations.
When we did this research on honesty, what we very often found is that. We would give them a general knowledge test and we would pay them for the amount of transgressions they saw correctly. But then we would pay one group for Questions that were designed for cheating. And we wanted to see how honest people were compared to how many Questions they could answer correctly. When you give people money and opportunity for cheating they do it more often than not – which is a bad thing. We also found that many of them cheat only by a small amount and that is good news.  There are also people who realize that you can’t trace back their cheating, so they go all the way and cheat entirely. However this was a small group.
More money was lost to a lot of people cheating by a small amount as opposed to a small number of people cheating all the way. We have magical tricks up our sleeves, which convince us that we haven’t really done anything bad by cheating a little and that is why a lot of people do it.
An example would be, if you had some chewing gum on your desk and you left the room, I would pick it up thinking that it was just one and that you wouldn’t have really missed it. If it becomes two, then its harder to convince myself of a rationality. If it is the entire packet then it gets really hard to convince myself.
Similarly, taking a pen from work is easier than taking one dollar form the petty cash box. Situations are such that sometimes they make it easier for us to convince ourselves about our behaviour. We even forget the moral norms to justify our actions to ourselves.
When there are constant reminders about morality, social norms and values in your environment, it gets harder to suppress these when you want to commit an act.
And yes, I do think a lot about dishonesty and what is right or wrong. From that perspective it might be a little bit harder to suppress the whole ignoring of standards. Yet, I am as susceptible to cheating by a small amount as much as the next person.
Rohan: It is actually really disturbing to read about this right..
Nina: Sorry but it is actually not that disturbing. An economist would say that every person in our experiments should cheat all the way. The test was designed such that we cannot prove who cheated. It is really surprising that despite the fact that they can all get away with completely cheating, the vast majority cheats only by a small amount.
Rohan: I should explain more when I say disturbing. One of the conclusions of Dan’s book is that when cash is directly associated with cheating we do it less. However we are moving as society from cash to cashless transactions. Which means it makes it very easy to cheat in the coming days.
And I think it all comes down to little Cues. I was at a clients place and there were Cues about washing hands and keeping a place clean etc. As a result whether we like it or not, we do keep the place clean. That was my biggest learning. So when you want to build an environment with values, these cues help so much.
Nina: Reminders, Questions like ‘How important is honesty to your family?’ all help. There is some beautiful research showing how a picture of a pair of eyes (it needn’t be real eyes, anything that can be interpreted as eyes will do) makes people more honest.It is as if someone is watching you.
Cues are a good place to start. However, humans are smart and we would find a way (a magic trick) to get across these. Maybe the cues need to change as well with time.
Rohan: It seems as if you accidentally ended up here. What were some of the defining moments that stood out so far?
Nina: I don’t think I had that Ahaa moment. It was just about being surrounded by amazing people especially like Dan. Just seeing how much he loves his job and seeing him ask the right Questions inspires me. I saw that my field of research could actually be impactful on the society when asking the right questions. That is my biggest motivation. The more I saw, the less I could imagine being anything else.
Rohan: I am very far away from research but I can see how exciting your work is! So what are some productivity hacks that make your day better?
Nina: I get distracted from my productivity every time I see the little dot on my e-mail program. It becomes so hard to resist not opening it up. What I am trying to do now is switch of the program when I am focusing on my work. I turn it on for half hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon and evening. That’s the ideal place I want to get to, to improve my productivity.
Rohan: Is there an idea or a thought that you would like to share with the people on this forum?
Nina: There is a great research that’s coming out in a book by my friend – Michael Norton from HBS and his collaborator. Their work is to do with money and happiness. The essence of the research is that happiness comes from buying things for other people with your money and not from buying it for yourself. I really loved that idea. You should read up more and meet one of them maybe to do full justice to their work.
Thank you for that interesting conversation Nina. It was a pleasure having you here!
Dhanya, Eb and yours truly..