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Behavior economist Dan Ariely spoke about how even students with the best intentions cheat a little.[/media-credit]

Even people with good intentions cheat, as long as it allows them to still feel good about themselves, a behavioral economist told a crowd at the Wisconsin Union Theatre Tuesday.

As a part of the Distinguished Lecture Series, Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, spoke on human irrationality in every facet of life and proposed ways to fix irrational decision making.

He conducted studies of cheating on college campuses, including Princeton and the University of California-Los Angeles and the results showed most students tend to cheat a little bit.

As a part of the study, students were asked to complete a test of math problems and were paid $1 for every correct answer. His studies showed when students had to grade their own tests and submit their scores, their average was four out of 10 correct, but when students were asked to only say their grades, the average was six out of 10.

Ariely attributed this increase in the average to cheating on their grade reports.

While conceding the majority of his subjects in the cheating experiment were good people with good intentions, Ariely said thousands of people cheat a little bit on the math tests and “each steal a few dollars.” He said this large amount of cheating a little adds up to much more cheated answers than a few people cheating a lot.

Ariely believes people are trying to balance two goals: to feel they are honorable people, but they also want to cheat. If they cheat just by a little bit, they can still feel good about themselves, enjoy cheating and gain from it.

“I liked the different examples that he caught our attention with. All his points were brought back to experiments. We’re all dishonest to a certain point and I don’t think I’ll change, but I’ll realize why I’m doing something,” UW senior Tawseef Islam said.

Ariely said his outlook on human nature is pessimistic, but there is a silver lining.

“We spend a lot of our lives building crutches to overcome physical limitations and somehow, when it comes to mental activity, we think we’re perfectly capable. I think if we say we are all limited in mental ways, we would be better,” Ariely said.

A number of these “mental crutches” are being developed, including a number of iPhone apps. One app would allow a user to send a difficult decision or temptation they believe irrational to a respected friend or family member.

“Another one of the apps would send a ringtone of your child’s voice when your GPS could tell you were speeding in your car. It would be to remind you what was really important. We don’t have the technology for that, but one day we will,” Ariely said.

Ariely had a brief question and answer session after the lecture, where he talked about upcoming areas he wished to experiment with and subsequently eliminate, including driving while texting and unprotected sex.

“Making the right decision is incredibly time consuming. Are we Superman or are we Homer Simpson? I think we’re somewhere in the middle,” Ariely said.