On the Matrix Test

This week’s learning is the first of a 8 part series from The Honest Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely.

(This book is about how we cheat others, especially ourselves, and was a fascinating read + wake up call. Since reading this book, I’ve been catching myself lie to myself more often. :-) As a result, I’m really excited about this 8 part series. Hopefully you will enjoy it as much as I did.)

2 groups of participants were asked to solve some “matrices” (puzzles) in a given time period.

“Control condition” Group: Finish matrices in given time and submit answer sheet to the coordinator.
“Shredder condition” Group: Finish, shred the answer sheet, and tell the coordinator how many were solved.

The shredder condition was a test of honesty and of the prevalent economic belief that assumes cheating would increase if the incentives were huge. So, test the incentive theory, different participants were offered different incentives. Some were offered 25 cents per right answer while others were offered $1, $2 or $10.

The results – The magnitude of cheating was almost exactly the same – on average, they said they answered 2 additional matrices in the shredder condition. In fact, it was slightly lower when they were promised a higher amount.

Why didn’t cheating increase? Why was it even lower in the highest incentive case?


The answer here is that cheating is a not a result of a cost-benefit analysis. We like to cheat “just a little bit” so we can still feel good about ourselves! Hence, we never cheat if it’s obvious. However, if there is a bit of ambiguity, there is high likelihood, we use it to our advantage.

Dan Ariely calls the ambiguity the “fudge factor.” So, does an increase in the fudge factor result in more cheating? Coming up next week..