Can moving the signature line on a contract make people more honest?

Many business and governmental interactions are based upon trust with the assumption that all actors generally comply with social and moral norms. Proof of compliance is typically provided through signature—e.g., at the end of tax returns or insurance policy forms. Yet even when people care about morality and want to be seen as ethical by others, they sometimes transgress when beneficial to their own self-interest, at great cost to economies across the globe. This paper focuses on testing an easy-to-implement method to discourage dishonesty: signing at the beginning rather than at the end of a self-report, as is the current common practice. Using both field and lab experiments, we find that signing before rather than after having faced the opportunity to cheat raises the saliency of ethics and morality and leads to significant reductions in dishonesty.

Source: “When to Sign on the Dotted Line? Signing First Makes Ethics Salient and Decreases Dishonest Self-Reports” from Harvard Business School Working Paper Number 11-117

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