Do People Cheat When No One’s Looking? Implications for Environmental Management

Feb 1, 2019 4:10 PM ET

Many environmental management programs offer people incentives to engage in conservation activities. But these activities, carried out on a local level, often are difficult to monitor. Are people inclined to cheat to get the incentives? Research led by Rohit Jindal of the MacEwan University Business School in Edmonton, Alberta and Erb Institute Faculty Director Joe Árvai set out to answer this question. Their research, entitled “To Cheat or Not? Results From Behavioral Experiments on Self-monitoring in Vietnam,” by Rohit Jindal, Joe Arvai, Delia Catacutan and Dam Viet Bac was published in Strategic Behavior and the Environment.

The researchers used a household survey and field experiments to see whether participants in rural Vietnam would behave honestly when collecting incentives for their participation, or whether they would take more than their fair share. Going against previous research that has found cheating to be common, the researchers found little cheating behavior. Their findings show that people do not necessarily cheat when unsupervised.

The research took place in five villages in the province of Bac Kan. Much of the land is covered by forests, and policymakers see the potential to improve people’s incomes through managing forests sustainably.

The experiments mimicked a typical scenario that provides payments for ecosystem services (PES). For example, some PES programs pay local land stewards for valuable ecosystem services like carbon sequestration. Bac Kan is a key site for Vietnam’s PES program, and Vietnam is one of the 13 countries where a program called Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is being piloted.

The survey 
Through a household survey, respondents were asked to predict whether their neighbor would take more than their fair share when offered cash or maize seeds for filling out a survey. Ninety-nine percent said their neighbor would collect the correct amount, even when unmonitored. The survey looked at pro-social norms of trust and cooperation in the community, and it found a high level of trust and honesty.

The field experiments 
Respondents were asked to fill out a questionnaire on local agriculture and forestry practices and, as an incentive for doing so, were offered either cash or hybrid maize seeds. After they completed the questionnaire, they were sent to another location to collect their designated incentive—going either individually or in pairs.

Participants were told to collect their own incentive (a designated amount of money or maize) as well as an equal amount for a resident of a neighboring village. When they arrived, they found more than twice the designated amount there—giving them the opportunity to take more than they were supposed to. With some participants, monitors were at the site to record what they took, and others were unmonitored (to their knowledge).

The researchers measured how much each person took for himself or herself and for the neighbor. Most participants collected the right amount, and the lack of monitoring did not encourage people to take more than their fair share.

When people were not monitored, they collected extra compensation in 12.3 percent of cases—but 31.8 percent collected less than the designated amount, which the researchers attributed to weighing errors when collecting and weighing maize seeds. They also found that people were more careful when collecting cash than when collecting maize. “Even when people are honest, they are more cautious (stricter) in dealing with cash than with in-kind incentives,” the researchers wrote.

Whether participants went to collect their incentives by themselves or in pairs did not matter. What did matter was the amount they collected for their neighbors. “The biggest difference is when people collect compensation for themselves versus for others. On average, respondents collect 12.6 percent less compensation for their neighbor than when they collect compensation for themselves,” the researchers noted.

These results have both theoretical and practical significance, the researchers noted. “Our work shows that many existing models of human behavior are unable to predict the outcomes that we have observed,” they wrote, pointing to the need to conduct behavioral experiments in the field and not just in lab settings.

Also, local context and social norms about honesty and abiding by the rules are important, the researchers noted. “We find that instead of broadening, moral wiggle room may become narrower in societies with strong norms around honesty, trust, and law abiding behavior. In such cases, subjects face little distress in choosing honest behavior even when they are not being watched by others,” they wrote. “The calculus of benefit-cost analysis, or of arguing with their inner self to cheat a little bit does not seem to arise.”

The finding that people are unlikely to cheat—and the importance of local context and social norms—may be useful in designing monitoring arrangements for PES-based community forestry projects that are under way around the world, the authors noted.