SPI Working Paper Series

WP #: 027

Date: Jan 2015


SPI Funded Paper

On the Origins of Dishonesty: From Parents to Children

    Daniel Houser, John A. List, Marco Piovesan, Anya Samek, Joachim Winter

    George Mason University
    University of Chicago, NBER
    University of Copenhagen
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    University of Munich

Acts of dishonesty permeate life. Understanding their origins, and what mechanisms help to attenuate such acts is an underexplored area of research. This study takes an economics approach to explore the propensity of individuals to act dishonestly across different economic environments. We begin by developing a simple model that highlights the channels through which one can increase or decrease dishonest acts. We lend empirical insights into this model by using an experiment that includes both parents and their young children as subjects. We find that the highest level of dishonesty occurs in settings where the parent acts alone and the dishonest act benefits the child rather than the parent. In this spirit, there is also an interesting effect of children on parents’ behavior: in the child’s presence, parents act more honestly, but there are gender differences. Parents act more dishonestly in front of sons than daughters. This finding has the potential of shedding light on the origins of the widely documented gender differences in cheating behavior observed among adults.

SPI Quick Look:
This paper proposes and tests a model that incorporates moral costs into the decision of behaving dishonestly: higher moral costs result in a lower rate of dishonesty. The model is tested using a field experiment with parent-child pairs to investigate the willingness of parents to lie about the outcome of a coin toss when 1) the child is present or absent and 2) when the benefit of the lie is to the parent or to the child. Results show that parents are significantly less likely to act dishonestly when the child is in the room, pointing to the importance of scrutiny and moral cost. Further, parents are least dishonest when the child is in the room and the payoff (gift) is a toy for the child rather than cash for the parent. Finally, the child’s gender matters: parents are significantly more likely to cheat in front of sons than daughters.