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'Moral Reminders' May Help Clean Up Wall Street

Ariely discovered in these sessions that not only can cheating be catchy -- seeing one person get away with cheating during an experiment could inspire cheating by others -- but it can also be altruistic. When cheaters learned that someone else would also benefit from their cheating, they became even more dishonest. But there are ways to cut back on cheating, and red flags to watch for:

1. Ambiguous rules create opportunities for cheaters. Ariely says a lot of what sets off today's corporate scandals is that ambiguous regulations give cheaters lots of ways to rationalize what they do. "When the rules are not clear, you can play with them," he said. People in creative jobs tend to have more of what Ariely euphemistically refers to as "moral flexibility" -- meaning they drum up more rationalizations to cheat -- than do others. He asked a group of ad agency employees a series of questions about moral dilemmas and found that the higher the level of creativity, the more "flexible" the person. Accountants were the least "flexible."

2. Financial regulations based on disclosure are an invitation for trouble. U.S. securities regulations rest on a philosophy that companies must disclose what they're doing on a timely basis, and it's up to investors to do their homework and analyze the mountains of documents. Ariely doesn't think that's working out so well. He'd rather see a financial version of the Food and Drug Administration, where products would be vetted to see if they had any value. It's an interesting idea, but would require a regulatory redo that isn't likely.

3. There's more cheating today because it's easier to do. In an increasingly cashless world, financial cheaters are ever more tempted to do the kind of thing that the cheating golfer does: break the rules to get what they want without touching the ball. If you're looking to steal money, you have lots of opportunities these days that don't require touching the cash. On top of that, money changes hands with more frequency than ever, magnifying the volume of cheating opportunities.
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