• Prasanna Adhikari

What behavioral nudges can you use to get your COVID-19 questionnaires answered more truthfully?

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

This question often comes up when I talk with customers about their implementation of the COVID-19 self-screening process at their organizations. Typically, businesses ask their employees and visitors to fill out a COVID-19 self-screening questionnaire and sign it, pledging that they have answered the question truthfully. The workplace safety of these businesses depends immensely on people answering those questions honestly. So, the big question that comes up often is, what can we do to ensure that people are more truthful when answering the questionnaire? Before trying to answer this question, let me take a short detour.

Recently, as I was getting out of my house for a jog, I asked my son to lock our front door behind me. A typical second grader as he is, he responded with a question, "Why? Is a burglar coming?". "No," I replied. Of course, my answer did not satisfy his curiosity. "Then, why do we have to lock the door?" he asked. Any attempt to answer this question would have unleashed a barrage of more questions I didn't have the patience for before my run. I told him I would explain after returning, hoping he would forget about it (which he didn't).

So, why do we lock our door if a burglar can pick it with such ease? I came across an answer to this question in a story I mentioned in one of my earlier posts. Here is how the story goes: Someone once lost the key to his house and had to call a locksmith to help him get in. The locksmith took about a minute to pick the lock and unlock the door. Stunned, the person asked what good the lock is if someone can pick it in less than a minute. The locksmith replied that the purpose of the lock is not to keep the burglars out. It is to keep honest people honest. He opined that the vast majority of the people are mostly honest but can be dishonest when the opportunity, such as an unlocked door, arises.

Alas, I wish we had some magic trick to get everyone to be 100% truthful. As the locksmith points put, a small percentage of the people will remain dishonest regardless of what we do. But the good news is that the rest of the people, a vast majority, can be nudged towards being more truthful.

Behavioral psychologists now know that gentle reminder of something that stands for higher moral standards nudges people to act more honestly. In one set of experiments, researchers found that college students were less likely to cheat in tests when asked to recall the Ten Commandments before the tests. Interestingly enough, the improvement was independent of the religious disposition of students. In other comparable experiments, the researchers observed similar trends when asked self-declared atheists to swear on a Bible before taking the tests.

It is needless to say that reminding people of the Ten Commandments or asking them to swear on a Bible each time they fill out a COVID-19 questionnaire hardly seems viable. The big question these results beg is whether other secular objects representing higher moral standards have a similar effect?

To answer this question, researchers performed similar experiments using another object of higher moral standards: code of conduct at colleges. They asked a group of students at two Ivy League schools to sign a pledge, before taking a test, to abide by their respective schools' honor code system. As you may have expected, those who signed the pledge cheated much less than those who didn't. It is worth noting that the two schools where the experiments took place did not even have an honor code system. Just pledging to an honor code system, although they did not subscribe to it, was sufficient to nudge them towards being more honest.

Most businesses, like most colleges, do not have an honor code system. But most do have codes of conduct that stands for a higher moral standard. Asking employees to sign a pledge to abide by such a code of conduct each time they fill out a form is likely to have similar effects even though such a code may not exist in a formal written form.

You may have noticed something peculiar about these experiments: the subjects signed the pledges before taking the test. However, every typical form we use today has a pledge line at the end of the form, and we sign them after we fill out the form. Does our truthfulness change if we sign those forms before we fill them out, much the same way the students did in those experiments?

To answer such questions, the researchers conducted another set of experiments. In these experiments, the participants had to travel a bit to participate but were paid nominally for their travel based on their travel duration. For the payment, each participant had to fill out and sign a travel reimbursement form. Some randomly selected participants used typical reimbursement forms, the one with a signature line at the bottom. The others used reimbursement forms with a signature line at the top. The researchers discovered that those using the typical forms claimed almost twice the amount compared to the other group, giving in to the temptation to claim more than their fair share.

To further validate this result in a real-world scenario, the researcher worked with an insurance company and asked its 20,000 customers to fill out a simple questionnaire about the total mileage they drove over the past year. About 50% of the customers, selected randomly, were sent the insurance company's standard form with its standard pledge ("I promise that the information I am providing is true") and a signature line at the bottom of the form. The other 50% were sent forms with the pledge and the signature line at the top of the form. After analyzing the data, the research found that the first group reported, on average, 15% more mileage than the second group did. Since everyone had an incentive to report less mileage, it is fair to assume that those who signed at the bottom, on average, were being more dishonest than more than those who signed at the top.

It is encouraging to learn from these experiments that having people sign their form before they fill it out can nudge them to be more truthful in their answers. It is by no means a potion to turn the like of Berne Madoff into the likes of Mother Teresa. However, it seems to be a recipe to nudge everyone towards their better selves.

Speaking of our better selves, you may have noticed something different about the last two examples (travel reimbursement and mileage driven). In both of these cases, the participants simply signed a pledge to be truthful. There were no references to the Ten Commandments, the Bible, or the honor code system. The reference, implicitly, was to their own high moral standards, their better selves. The result may not be surprising when we realize that each one of us has a very high self-inflated opinion of our moral standard. The pledge with signature does the trick of summoning those better selves before we set out to answer the questions.

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