Ethical nudging

The survey data captures what people think — but not how they act. From research that I've done, the same tendency exists in other facets of our lives. When confronted with the opportunity to cheat, most people engage in behavior that violates their own ethical goals.

Fortunately, simple interventions can help. For instance, consider a study that my colleagues and I conducted a few years ago [PDF] in collaboration with a major U.S. car insurance company. As part of the study, we sent 13,488 of the company's customers a form that asked them to report the number of miles they had driven the prior year, as indicated on their cars' odometers. Cheating by under-reporting mileage would come with the financial benefit of lower insurance premiums.

On about half of the forms sent out, customers were supposed to sign to indicate their truthfulness at the bottom of the form. The other half of the forms asked the customers to sign at the top of the form. The average mileage reported by customers who signed the form at the top was more than 2,400 miles higher than that reported by customers who signed at the bottom of the form.

From Francesca Gino. Mental context is very powerful, and messages transmit more easily when people are in the right mode to receive  them.