Jul 24

What Everybody Ought to Know About Travel and Dishonesty

by in Travel as Mastery

I was certain the cab driver was cheating me. I had taken that same route in a metered cab before and the price was nowhere near the price I usually paid.

Cairo taxi stand. Borrowed from a BBC Article.

I made an attempt to communicate this to the driver who then proceeded to insist he wasn’t cheating me and that we could pull over and talk to a police officer if I would like to report it.

Not wanting the hassle, I let the driver take me home and I paid him what I thought the fare should be. I was upset and this was my way of getting back at the asshole who rigged his meter.

The next time I had to take a cab on the same route, I carefully watched the meter. It was weird, it looked like it was going to be “abnormally” high again. I also managed to figure out the formula the meter was using.

The fare ended up being the same as it was before.

I confirmed in the next few cab rides I took on that route that in fact, I was not ripped off that other time. It turns out that I ripped off the cab driver.


I was the asshole.

So what happened?

The Annoyance Factor

Dan Ariely, a psychology and behavioral economics professor at Duke, recently published a book called The Honest Truth About Dishonesty. It’s a fun and thought provoking read. He explains (very well in my opinion) the motivations and conditions in which people behave dishonestly. For example, did you know that wearing counterfeit designer sunglasses will increase the chances that you will cheat? It’s true. If you’re interested in staying honest, I would avoid buying knockoffs.

In the book, Ariely describes an experiment that took place in a coffee shop. Ariely and a colleague hired a young actor named Daniel to ask coffee shop patrons to participate in a five-minute task in return for $5. After the participants finished the test, Daniel would give them a small stack of bills, asked them to sign the receipt, and then to leave it on the table to be collected later.

The trick was he gave the participants $9. The test was to see how many participants would return the extra cash.

This was the “no-annoyance” condition.

In the annoyance condition, Daniel would do something a little bit different. In the middle of explaining the task to the customers, Daniel would pretend his cell phone was vibrating in his pocket and answer it. The fake conversation went like this:

[Daniel] reached into his pocket, took out the phone, and said, “Hi, Mike. What’s up?” After a short pause, he would enthusiastically say, “Perfect, pizza tonight at eight thirty. My place or yours?” Then he would end his call with “Later.” The whole fake conersation took about twelve seconds.

So what were the results of the experiment?

In the no-annoyance condition, 45% of people returned the extra money.

In the annoyance condition, only 14% of the people returned the extra money.

Wow. A 12 second annoyance dramatically increased the likelihood that people would cheat. This is the power of the “annoyance” factor.

Back to the Cab Incident

The first thing I should mention is that the cab incident did not take place in the US. I was living in Cairo.

Cairo has its charms, but it can also be incredibly frustrating for someone coming from a more developed country. It’s dirty, the traffic is terrible, it can get incredibly hot, and if you don’t speak Arabic it’s difficult to communicate.

If a 12 second interruption can cause you to cheat, being a foreigner in Cairo may occasionally make you want to strangle someone.

I don’t remember what my day was like on the day I acted like an asshole to the cab driver, but I’m sure there were many things that annoyed me before I took the cab ride. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe I had to deal with some idiot bureaucrat. I don’t know.

What I do know is that being irritated caused me to be suspicious of the cab driver and act a little more paranoid. Even more impressively, it changed my memory of every cab ride I had before that day! I “remembered” that the previous cab fares were much lower than what this “thief” cab driver was charging me. I was so certain of the fact, that I accused the cab driver of cheating and than indignantly paid him the “correct” fare.

If it hadn’t been for the fact that I could easily verify the correct cab fare during later cab rides, I would probably be writing a blog post about how I righteously confronted a cab driver about his immoral ways and then rightfully paid him the fair amount.

Why Travel Puts You At Greater Risk of Dishonesty

Travel increases the odds that you will behave dishonestly. Here’s why:

a) The rules change. When you travel to a different country, there are all sorts of rules, customs, and practices that you will not be familiar with. Things that are offensive in your country may be normal in others. As enlightened as you think you are, you will most likely have a deeply ingrained, gut annoyance with these practices. As we discovered earlier, annoyance correlates quite well with dishonesty.

b) Travel lends itself to “moral holiday” syndrome. This is a concept I’m borrowing from sociology. Most countries and cultures have days when its members are given permission to behave in ways that would normally be considered deviant. Think about Mardi Gras in the US. 99% of the year, those women who flash their breasts in exchange for beads would never behave that way. However, this sort of behavior is expected in New Orleans during Mardi Gras so they get a sort of moral pass.

One important element of the moral holiday is a change in environment. People go to Las Vegas to cut loose. Gambling and going to strip clubs would not be acceptable at home. When you travel abroad, you’re probably unsure about the rules, but you’re more likely to behave in ways that you wouldn’t behave at home just because you’re traveling abroad. It’s not hard to find drunken tourists in Thailand who are probably upstanding citizens back home.

Context matters, and it matters a lot when it comes to dishonesty.

c) Travel increases fatigue and ego depletion. When you travel, you are robbed of the routines, rituals, and habits that made it easy for you to function at home. Even something like finding a place to eat while traveling can become an exhausting exercise. Every decision is an active, deliberate one. When you’re in an exhausted state, your willpower is gone. When you are tired and placed in a situation where you have the opportunity to behave dishonestly, you probably will.

Ariely and many other professors noticed a puzzling phenomenon that seems to take place at the end of every semester: many students’ relatives seem to die before a final exam or paper is due. Mike Adams, a professor at Eastern Connecticticut State University, has shown that gradmothers are ten times more likely to die before a midterm and nineteen times more likely to die before a final exam.

While Ariely seriously considered the possibility that there might be some kind of causal relationship between exames and sudden deaths among grandmothers, he concluded it’s more likely that stress and fatigue at the end of the semester encouraged the students to lie about their grandmothers’ health.

Is there anything we can do prevent dishonesty while traveling?

The main message of Ariely’s book is that most people cheat a little bit, but very people cheat a lot. He also discovered that this is true in pretty much all countries and cultures. He conducted many of the same dishonesty experiments in various countries and found people cheated about the same across cultures. Of course, these tests are culture neutral and don’t explain varying levels of corruption in different countries, but you shouldn’t feel too bad about being occasionally dishonest. You’re only human.

That being said, you should probably become wary of the choices and decisions you make when you travel. If you’ve been traveling on a bus for 12 hours and you sit down at restaurant and think you’re being charged more than everyone else, second guess yourself. Maybe you are getting ripped off, but maybe you aren’t. Acknowledge your mental state and adjust accordingly.

Be humble, acknowledge your weaknesses, and try to make the best and most honest decision you can.

Related posts: