In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely examines the contradictory forces that drive us to cheat and keep us honest, in this groundbreaking look at the way we behave.
The relationships between what we wear and how we behave
When thinking about my experience with the Prada bag, I wondered whether there were other psychological forces related to fakes tha go beyond external signiling. There I was in Chinatown holding my real Prada bag, watching the woman emerge from the shop holding her fake one.
More generally, I started wondering about the relationship between what we wear and how we behave, and it made me think about a concept that social scientists call self-signiling.
The basic idea behind self-signiling is that despite what we tend to think, we don’t have a very clear notion of who we are. We generally believe that that we have a privileged view of our own preferences and character, but in reality we don’t know ourselves that well (and not definitely as well as we think we do). Instead, we observe ourselves in the same way we observe and judge the actions or other people–inferring who we are and what we like from our actions.
For example, imagine that you see a beggar on the street. Rather than ignoring him or giving him money, you decide to buy him a sandwich. The action in itself does not define who you are, your morality, or your character, but you interpret the deed as evidence of your compassionate and charitable character. Now, armed with this ‘new’ information, you start believing more intensely in your own benevolence. That’s self-signiling at work.
The same principles could also apply to fashion accessories. Carrying a real Prada bag–even if no one else knows it s real–could make us think and act a little differently than if we were carrying a counterfeit one.
Does wearing counterfeit products somehow make us feel less legitimate? Is it possible that accesorizing with fakes might affect us in unexpected and negative ways?
Using the lure of Chloé accessories, we enlisted many female MBA students for our experiment. At the start of the experiment, we asigned each woman 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. Finally, in the no-information condition, we didn’t say anything about the authenticity of the sunglasses.
Here’s what we found. As usual, lots of people cheated by a few questions. But while ‘only’ 30 percent of the participants in the authentic condition reported solving more matrices than they actually had, 74 percent of those in the fake condition reported solving more matrices than they actually had. In the no-information condition, 42 percent of the women cheated.
These results suggest that wearing a genuine product does not increase our honesty. But once we knowingly put a counterfeit product, moral constraints loosen to some degree, making it easier for us to take further steps down the path of dishonesty.
The moral of the story? If you, your friend, or someone you are dating wears counterfeit products, be careful! Another act of dishonesty may be closer than you expect.
For more about The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, watch the video What dishonesty is all about, where Ariely discusses white lies (lies you tell for other peoples’ benefit), “the subway was late” lies that benefit ourselves, and, further, the lies we juggle when our personal and business lives intersect.