From The Economist
Cheats may or may not prosper, but they despise themselves for cheating
Those who buy counterfeit designer goods project a fashionable image at a fraction of the price of the real thing. You might think that would make them feel rather smug about themselves. But an intriguing piece of research published in Psychological Science by Francesca Gino of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, suggests the opposite: wearing fake goods makes you feel a fake yourself, and causes you to be more dishonest in other matters than you would otherwise be.
Dr Gino and her colleagues provided a group of female volunteers with Chloé sunglasses that cost about $300 a pair, supposedly as part of a marketing study. They told some of the volunteers that the sunglasses were real, and others that they were counterfeit. They then asked the volunteers to perform pencil-and-paper mathematical quizzes for which they could earn up to $10, depending on how many questions they got right. The participants were spun a yarn about how doing these quizzes would allow them to judge the comfort and quality of the glasses.
Crucially, the quizzes were presented as “honour tests” that participants would mark themselves, reporting their own scores to the study’s organisers. The quiz papers were unnumbered and thus appeared to be untraceable, and were thrown away at the end of the study. In fact, though, each had one unique question on it, meaning that it could be identified—and the papers were recovered and marked again by the researchers after they had been discarded.
Of participants told that they were wearing authentic designer sunglasses, 30% were found to have cheated, reporting that they had solved more problems than was actually the case. Of those who thought they were wearing fake sunglasses, by contrast, about 70% cheated.
The results were similar when the women completed a computer-based task that involved counting dots on a screen. In this case, the location of the dots determined the financial reward. The women who thought they were wearing counterfeits lied about those locations more often than those who did not.
In a third part of the study, the participants were asked questions about the honesty and ethics of people they knew and people in general. Those who thought they had knock-offs were more likely to say that people were dishonest and unethical.
It looked, then, as if believing they were wearing fakes made people feel like fakes. To test that hypothesis, Dr Gino and her colleagues ran the experiment again, this time including a test meant to detect self-alienation. They asked the participants if they agreed with statements like, “right now, I feel as if I don’t know myself very well”. Those who thought they were wearing fakes did indeed feel more alienated from themselves than those who knew they were wearing the real things.
It remained possible, however, that it was the sense of self-alienation which was normal, and that believing you were wearing designer glasses made you more at ease with yourself. To test that, the team ran one final set of experiments, in which some people were given sunglasses to wear without any indication of their provenance. Volunteers in this control group behaved like those who believed the glasses were authentic.
The moral, then, is that people’s sense of right and wrong influences the way they feel and behave. Even when it is someone else who has made them behave badly, it can affect their subsequent behaviour. Next time you are offered fake accessories, beware: wearing them can make you feel like a bad person, not a better one.