by Dan Ariely
don’t start ‘cuz you’ll never stop… lying.
My interest in fashion began late in life, with an experience most New Yorkers have at some time or another. I was walking through Chinatown one brisk fall morning; it was already buzzing with people, savory smells, and street vendors hawking their wares along Canal Street. As I took in the scene, my gaze came to rest on a good-looking young couple slowly making their way through the chaos. A man approached them. “Handbags!” he called, tilting his head to indicate the direction of his small shop. At first they didn’t react. Then, after a moment, the woman asked, “You have Prada?” The man nodded, and I watched as she conferred with her partner. He smiled at her, and they followed the man to his stand.
Normally I wouldn’t have thought much of this, however, in this particular instance, I was fresh from a talk I’d been invited to give at Harper’s Bazaar by my friend Freeda Fawal-Farah, and I’d been rewarded in part with a black Prada overnight bag. While I’m not usually one with much interest in labels, I still felt curiously aware of the bag. I wondered whether I should carry it with the logo showing or facing me. I wondered why I felt just a little more… sophisticated. After all, my outfit was otherwise unremarkable—jeans, jacket, red sneakers. Why would a bag I didn’t choose or buy—and never would—confer this heightened self-awareness and feeling of aesthetic enlightenment?
This question got me thinking about the relationship between what we wear and how we behave, and a concept that social scientists call self-signaling. The idea here is that despite the fact that we assume a fairly acute level of self-knowledge, we actually don’t have a very clear notion of who we are. We don’t know ourselves that well, and definitely not as well as we think we do. Instead, we observe ourselves more or less the same way we observe and judge the actions of other people— inferring who we are and what we like from our choices and actions. In this light, it seemed likely to me that the relationship I had with my authentic Prada bag differed quite a bit from the relationship the woman I saw on Canal street had with her knock off. So while I felt more cultivated and polished, do people who buy and wear fakes conversely feel inauthentic, like cheaters who can get away with pretending to be something they’re not. And if so, do they cheat more as a result?
Naturally, I had to experiment with this idea. Freeda from Harper’s graciously used her connections to procure me $7000 worth of Chloé sunglasses. Using this booty as bait, I enlisted many female MBA students for our experiment. (In previous experiments we saw no gender-related difference in dishonesty, the reason we carried out this experiment with women was simply because the glasses were part of a women’s line.)
In the experiment itself, my colleagues and I assigned the women 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 samples we received from Chloé). Finally, in the no-information condition, we didn’t say anything about the authenticity of the sunglasses, leaving the participants to conclude what they would, if they thought about authenticity at all.
Next we asked the women to walk around and test out the glasses—to see generally how they liked them, how they performed (inasmuch as sunglasses can do so), to judge their (in)authenticity for themselves. Once they’d had them on for a while, we asked them to solve a series of problems called matrix tasks, in which participants choose which two numbers add up to 10 out of 12 numbers in a 3 x 4 matrix.
Imagine for a moment being part of this experiment. In your case, the experimenter informs you that your glasses are counterfeit and instructs you to test them out to see what you think. You’re handed a legitimate-looking case (the logo is spot-on!), and you pull out the sunglasses, examine them, and slip them on. Do you compare the sunglasses to the pair in your car or the ones you broke the other day? Do you think, “Yeah, these are very convincing. No one would be able to tell they’re fake.” Maybe you think that the weight doesn’t feel right or that the plastic seems cheap.
Then, you’re given a sheet of problems and asked to solve them and to report how many you get right, for payment. What do you think you would do? Fudge your score a bit? If so, how much?
What we found was that, as usual in cheating experiments, lots of people cheated by a few questions. But while “only” 30% of the participants in the authentic condition reported solving more matrices than they actually had, 74% of those in the fake condition claimed to solve more matrices than they had.
These findings, though impressive, begged an important question, namely whether the presumed fakeness of the product made participants cheat more than they would have, or whether instead, the genuine Chloé label made them behave more honestly. In other words, which was more powerful: the negative self-signaling in the fake condition or the positive self-signaling in the authentic condition?
This is why we included the third condition, in which nothing was known about the glasses vis-à-vis their authenticity. How many of the people in this group cheated, you ask? The answer: 42%. So although this number is between the two, it’s much closer to the 30% rate of those in the authentic condition. This means that the inauthentic condition was the one that effected behavior more: wearing counterfeits made people behave much more dishonestly.
The finding that simply wearing fake designer items can make people more dishonest is certainly notable, and cause enough for discussion. But we didn’t stop here. We wondered whether fake goods could also induce the “What The Hell” effect. This is something we’ve all experienced in situations like holiday dinners. You’ve eaten twice as much food as you normally would, so when it’s time for pie—which you normally refuse—you think, what the hell, I’ve blown it for today, so I might as well have some! But this happens with more than just diet, it’s at work in any situation in which you might find yourself thinking “I suppose at this point, I might as well…” Lying beneath this sort of thinking is the reality that we tend to view ourselves in an all-or-nothing fashion—we’re on a diet or we’re not. We wondered whether this would hold true for cheating. Would people begin cheating, then, considering themselves cheaters at that point, go all out and cheat for maximum gain as long as they were at it?
To test this, we repeated the earlier experiment, except that instead of the matrix task we had participants do something called the dots test, which is a very simple task in which you chose which side of a square contains more dots, and again, participants got paid according to how many they instances they were correct. Sometimes it was obvious which side was dottier, other times is was hard to tell. Participants viewed 100 such screens, making decisions for each. But here’s the twist: people got paid 10 times more when they chose the right half of the square. This created a clear conflict of interest—if the sides looked almost even, might not the right side somehow seem to contain more dots? And might not people decide that hey, they’ve already cheated on a few, why not just click the right-hand button for all of them and make a little more cash?
As it turned out, our dots task showed the same general results as the matrix task, with lots of people cheating but just by a bit. However, we also saw that the amount of cheating was far greater for those wearing the fake Chloés. Counterfeit wearers cheated more across the board. They cheated more when it was hard to tell which side had more dots, and they cheated more even when the correct answer was obviously that more dots were on the left (the side with the lower financial reward).
So it seems that the clothes do make the man (or woman) and that wearing knockoffs does have an effect on ethical decisions. For those who come down on the side of designers seeking to root out all fakes, this is welcome news for obvious reasons. For those who have little sympathy for designers who charge astronomical amounts for products bearing their signature patterns, well, that old “I wouldn’t buy them anyway so who do fakes really hurt” argument doesn’t go as far as it used to does it?