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Research on the Harm of 'Small Cheaters'

Researcher Dan Ariely did a massive study to try and understand why some people lie, cheat, and steal. Ariely and his team went to college campuses and offered to pay students for every math puzzle they could solve in five minutes. At the end of the five minutes, the students were asked to grade their own papers and shred them in the back of the room. Then the students stood in line and received money for every right answer. But the students didn't know that the shredder didn't actually shred their papers so the researchers could check to see if they were telling the truth. Ariely found that, on average, students reported solving six problems, when in fact they solved only four.

Over the course of their research, after testing 30,000 people, Ariely found only 12 "big cheaters," compared to 18,000 "small cheaters." The big cheaters stole a total of $150, while the small cheaters stole around $36,000—just one or two dollars at a time. Ariely did this research project all over the world—in the United States, Western Europe, Turkey, Israel, China, and many other countries—and the results were always roughly the same.

Ariely concluded that most dishonesty happens among ordinary people who think of themselves as basically honest. But when added together, all this "little" dishonesty has a huge impact. Most of the problems faced by the human race are not rooted in the lives of outliers and psychopaths—life's big cheaters. Our problems are rooted in the lives of typical, ordinary people who find ways to rationalize their own bad behavior. In other words, we want to think of ourselves as honest people while enjoying the benefits of dishonesty.

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