Do or dieDo or die

The truth: It’s all in the timing

As project deadlines loom closer, employees are more likely to legitimize lying about progress, study finds

Illustrative picture of dice (photo credit: CC BY-SA-2.5, by Jedudedek, Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative picture of dice (photo credit: CC BY-SA-2.5, by Jedudedek, Wikimedia Commons)

If you want to get at the truth of your employees’ projects, two Israeli researchers have determined what you need to do: ask them while their deadline is still far away.

Professor Bradley Ruffle of the Department of Economics at Ben Gurion University and Dr. Yossi Tobol of the Jerusalem College of Technology conducted an experiment on 427 IDF soldiers, then extrapolated their conclusions to the general workforce. They recently published their results in the Social Science Research Network website.

Ruffle and Tobol instructed the participating soldiers to roll a die, and told them that the higher the number on the die, the earlier they would be released for the weekend. If the die showed one pip, they would leave half an hour earlier than usual, two pips — an hour early, and so on, with 6 pips ensuring the soldiers three hours of additional off-time.

“The most important value in the IDF is trustworthiness — you can’t cheat,” Tobol told The Times of Israel.

He said that the average number of pips that will show on a tossed die was 3.5. When the experiment was conducted on Sunday or Monday, the average result reported was consistent with this prediction.

However, the closer to the weekend the test was conducted, the higher the average reported die roll. By Thursday, according to Tobol, soldiers reported an average of 4.1 pips for their throws.

According to a Ben Gurion University press release, Ruffle explained that the “finding suggests the importance of distancing the time between the question and the reward to obtain honest responses or behavior.” On the other hand, he added, “to elicit reliable, honest intentions regarding a costly outcome, a question should be posed as close as possible to the outcome.”

Employers could benefit from the study, Ruffle said, if “instead of immediately paying company managers and employees based on their self-reported tasks, remuneration should be delayed to some — possibly unannounced — future date to promote honesty.”

The same idea — postponing reimbursement — could help reduce insurance fraud “in which the customer overstates the value of claims or falsely reports missing or damaged items,” Ruffle said.

An additional application of the findings can be used in daily home life. “Parents often condition rewards to their children on good behavior or the completion of their chores or homework,” Ruffle explained. “The optimal time to ask your eight-year-old son whether he behaved well at school is not as you tear off the wrapper from his promised candy, but well beforehand.”

Unlike in other studies on the honesty of employees, Ruffle and Tobol did not alter the material benefit or cost of dishonesty (the probability or consequences of being caught in the lie). The soldiers participating in the study all rolled their dice in private, with no chance of a dishonest answer being discovered, and the benefit of the die throws remained constant.

Rather, the only factor that changed throughout the study was the proximity to the reward. As Tobol explained, the closer the reward was to actualization, the more the participants felt a “legitimacy to lie.”

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