• Prasanna Adhikari

What does improving workplace honesty and selling more girl scout cookies have in common?



Not too long ago, I was at a local grocery store and noticed a few girl scouts selling cookies outside the store. Curious to validate what behavioral scientists tell us about our behavior, I decided to do my own crude social science experiment by observing their selling process. After watching them for about 15 minutes, a clear pattern emerged. Most of the time, people bought the cookies when they were coming out of the grocery store and not when they were going into the store.


To understand why I was curious to do this experiment, let us imagine another social science experiment that involves two jars of cookies. Each morning, place the first jar at a spot where your family mostly hangs out. In the evening, after dinner, put the second jar at their evening hangout spot. Which one of two jars do you think would be emptied earlier? Here is a hint: according to market research company The NPD Group, the consumption of sweet snacks peaks in the evening just after 8 PM, not too long after we have our dinner.


Pangs of hunger are not what is causing us to dig into our jars more often in the evening. We are more likely to give in to temptations to eat unhealthy food at the end of the day than early in the morning. What do all these things have to do with honesty? They both have to do with the depletion of our willpower.


According to behavioral scientists, our brain functions using two different systems: an impulsive system and a deliberative system. The impulsive system, our lizard brain, is what gives us the animal instinct to fight or flight. We use the deliberative system to be creative, analytical, perform challenging tasks, and exercise our willpower. The impulsive system is what makes us feel like wanting to munch on cookies, but the deliberative system is what keeps us from doing so.


From our everyday experience, we already know that our deliberative system has a finite capacity. There is only so much challenging task we can perform at any given time. While we keep our deliberate system busy, our lizard brain fills the gap where the deliberate system can't. Consequently, we are more likely to munch on Sneakers bar while we are doing our taxes than while walking on a beach.

Behavioral scientists tell us that our deliberate system not only has a finite capacity at any given time; it also gets depleted as we make use of it throughout the day. As a consequence, our impulsive system wields increasing influence over our behavior, not just while but also after we keep our deliberate system busy. In practical terms, we are more likely to give in to temptations at the end of a busy workday than at the end of a lazy Sunday at the beach.


It does not even have to be a very busy workday. As it turns out, performing even slightly mentally challenging tasks (such as trying to remember a seven-digit number vs. a two-digit number) diminishes our willpower. As we spend most of our day doing keeping our deliberate system busy, our willpower gradually gets depleted. At the end of each workday day, we become more likely to fall into many types of temptations, including one to be dishonest.


Our tendency to be dishonest when depleted is not just a theoretical conjecture. Behavioral scientists have demonstrated, through countless controlled experiments, that as we exercise our deliberative system and deplete our willpower, we become less honest. Once we replenish our deliberate system, perhaps with a good sleep overnight or a restful weekend, we regain our willpower and our footing on honesty.


What does all of this mean for workplace honesty? Virtually every kind of work we do exercises our deliberative system. And as the day wears, our deliberate system gradually lets its guards down, out impulsive system fills the void, and unbeknown to us, our willpower weakens, and so does our honesty. It does not mean that we become entirely dishonest. It means, regardless of how honest we are in general, we become slightly less so.


How can you use this knowledge at your workplace? Of course, you are not going to be able to use it to turn Bernie Medoff types into Mother Teresas. Honesty is a very complex behavior that is influenced by many factors, some we know (more on those in my future posts), and some we don't. However, you can make improvements in your business processes and workflows that can nudge everyone in the right direction. The good news is, as I mentioned in my earlier post, even a slight nudge can bring significant benefits, financial or otherwise.


For example, in many industries, including construction, it is a general practice to have workforce complete and submit their time cards or many other reports at the end of the day on Fridays. It also happens to be the time of the week when their willpower is most depleted. Everyone has a higher bar of honesty on a Monday morning than at the end of the day on Friday. Businesses are likely to get more accurate reports by having their workforce complete and submit their time cards on Monday mornings instead of Friday afternoons.


You may or may not be able to use this knowledge to help improve honesty at your workplace. But you can surely help sell more girl scout cookies. Next time girl scouts approach with their cookies as you walk out of a grocery store, try helping them by dispensing a few nuggets of wisdom. Advise them to focus on the people walking out of the store. After resisting temptations to buy cookies, chips, and other goodies while in the store, they are likely to have less willpower to say no to a box of Samoa (my favorite) as they walk out it. For those that are selling cookies by going door-to-door in their neighborhoods, advise them to do their rounds in the evening, 8:00 PM to be precise. And before you walk away, load up your shopping cart with a few boxes of cookies and blame it on the grocery store for depleting your willpower.

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