I’m currently reading Dan Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. Read it – it’s a fascinating insight into how the human mind works, and it has much wider application than honest/dishonest behaviour.
I’m increasingly interested in how behavioural economics is playing a role in challenging some of the tenets of brand building. And I’m also noting that a number of our clients are paying similar attention.
Ariely runs an experiment repeatedly throughout his book that tests our tendency to cheat. The overall conclusion is that humans are all predisposed to cheating a little bit if we think we can get away with it. He then introduces variants along the way to tease out a few related issues to dishonesty.
A number of thoughts have struck me about the results and how they relate to our work at Interbrand. Here are two:
The first was around honour codes and how fragile they are. Ariely runs the experiment with first year students of a well-known US university who have all recently signed an ethics code where they pledge not to cheat. And he then asks these students, after completing the test, to declare that their answers are honest (despite giving them the chance to cheat in a way that they know thy can get away with). The results? The students still cheated.
But he then re-ran the experiment and asked the students to sign the declaration of honesty before completing the survey. The tendency to cheat was greatly reduced. The conclusion seemed to be that you need the reminder right up front and in the moment for the honour code to be effective.
As Areily points out, any industry – for example insurance or tax collection - that relies to some extent on the honesty of its "customers" should look to put the “I hereby declare…” at the start of the form.
I think it has application for us at Interbrand too, in particular where we do a lot of internal engagement with businesses that are looking to embed brand thinking into their organisation as part of a culture change programme. Too often this is treated as a communication campaign that assumes that if you tell employees in a bright and compelling way, the behaviour change will happen. My conclusion is that we’re all inclined to laziness, and need constant little reminders to "do the right thing" rather than a big moment in time.
Honour codes work, but they need constant reinforcement against the human inclination to inertia.
The second theme that struck me was about the social aspect of behaviour change. In Ariely’s experiments he demonstrates that people will cheat if they can, but will cheat more if they see their peers doing it and getting away with it. It’s what Ariely calls "socially contagious" behaviour. Again I’ve got to think there’s a parallel here to the bahvioural change that many culture-led programmes look to engender. The conclusion for me is that we need to work hardest at getting the right behaviours adopted by a few influential employees, and then noticed by their peers, rather than just looking at better company wide communication.
There’s more to come from Behavioural Economics in the brand world.
Fred Burt is Managing Director, Global Accounts, for Interbrand.