Why Wearing Fakes Makes Us Cheat More
With those hot commodities in hand, Francesca Gino, Mike Norton (both professors at Harvard University), and I set about testing whether participants who wore fake products would feel and behave differently from those wearing authentic ones. If our participants felt that wearing fakes would broadcast (even to themselves) a less honorable self-image, we wondered whether they might start thinking of themselves as somewhat less honest. And with this tainted self-concept in mind, would they be more likely to continue down the road of dishonesty?
Using the lure of Chloé accessories, we enlisted many female MBA students for our experiment. We assigned each woman to one of three conditions: authentic, fake or no information. In the authentic condition, we told participants that they would be donning real Chloé designer sunglasses. In the fake condition, we told them that they would be wearing counterfeit sunglasses that looked identical to those made by Chloé (in actuality all the products we used were the real McCoy). Finally, in the no-information condition, we didn’t say anything about the authenticity of the sunglasses.
Once the women donned their sunglasses, we directed them to the hallway, where we asked them to look at different posters and out the windows so that they could later evaluate the quality and experience of looking through their sunglasses. Soon after, we called them into another room for another task.
In this task, the participants were given 20 sets of 12 numbers (3.42, 7.32 and so on), and they were asked to find in each set the two numbers that add up to 10. They had five minutes to solve as many as possible and were paid for each correct answer. We set up the test so that the women could cheat—report that they solved more sets than they did (after shredding their worksheet and all the evidence)—while allowing us to figure out who cheated and by how much (by rigging the shredders so that they only cut the sides of the paper).
Over the years we carried out many versions of this experiment, and we repeatedly find that a lot of people cheated by a few questions. This experiment was not different in this regard, but what was particularly interesting was the effect of wearing counterfeits. While “only” 30 percent of the participants in the authentic condition reported solving more matrices than they actually had, 74 percent of those in the fake condition reported solving more matrices than they actually had. These results gave rise to another interesting question. Did the presumed fakeness of the product make the women cheat more than they naturally would? Or did the genuine Chloé label make them behave more honestly than they would otherwise?