By André H. Paris, Brazil
Professor, Compliance Consultant and Lawyer. SpiritSec’s Head of Compliance.

Continuing our series, we bring further examples on how companies may enhance its impact on corporate culture in the search of getting its compliance program “out of the paper”.

Moral reminders

In another version of his original experiment, Dan Ariely (before requesting the participants to answers correctly the most mathematical problems the they could in the time given) asked some of the participants to try to recall the last ten books that they read in high school and to other group of participants he invited them to remember the Ten Commandments[1].

Even though the members of the group that tried to recall the Ten Commandments were not able to remember all of them, not even one of them cheated the experiment results, while the other participants lied (as usually verified in the researcher’s experiments) about the number of correct answers that they were able to give.

Additionally, in another variation of the experiment, some atheists’ participants were asked to swear on the Bible before doing the mathematical tests, the outcomes for this group were the same, none of them cheated the results.

To assess if the propensity to honesty found in previous experiment was limited to religious matters the researcher changed the religious variable (the Bible or the Ten Commandments) and introduced the figure of a Code of Honor (do you see any similarity with organization’s Codes of Conduct/Ethics?) in the experiment.

In this variant, some of the participants (all MIT and Yale students) were required (while others were not) to sign a sheet of paper attesting that they understand that they should follow its respective university’s Code of Honor guidelines (even though none universities had any Code of Honor) while participating in the experiment.


Once again, the participants that were requested to sign their university’s code of Honor did not cheat at all, while the ones that were not asked to do so were not as honest about their answers results.

These experiments show that moral reminders can help to keep our integrity compass on track. By following this line of reasoning, a company could influence its employee’s behavior through reminders of the organization’s established values and of its ethical and transparency guidelines.

Therefore, for example, if some employee is requested to read the company’s antitrust policy before meeting with a competitor representative it is reasonable to assume that (based on the human behavior experiments findings) he will be less likely to engage in conspiracy practices against the free market with the business competitor.


Ethical Memory Loss

As we saw in the above-mentioned experiments, moral reminders can help humans stay on the ethics path. In relation to how long does our ethical memory lasts or when is the more appropriate moment to introduce these reminders a variation of Dan Ariely’s experiment[2] is enlightening.

In this version of the original experiment the researcher conducted his tests with Princeton students. The university is known for its honor concerns dated back to 1893. When new students arrive in Princeton, they receive a copy of its Code of Honor and must attest that they understand the university’s honor provisions before their enrolling can be accepted.

In addition, freshmen receive training on the Code’s provisions and must debate about honor in their first weeks at the university. To see the impact that these efforts could have in the experiment’s outcomes, Ariely ran the same experiment that he performed with MIT and Yale students with Princeton freshmen (just two weeks after they had their “ethical immersion”).

The experiment results were the same, the students who were invited to sign a piece of paper confirming that they understand that the experiment should be carried out accordingly do Princeton’s Code of Honor did not cheat, while the other freshman participants (who were not asked to do so) cheated.

The findings of this version of the experiment indicates that our “ethical memory” does not last as long as we would like to believe. Hence, complementarily to the conclusions obtained in previous experiments, corporations need not only to use moral reminders to influence positively its employees’ behaviors, but also foster this recall exercise constantly.


In part IV we talked about some factors that can influence a more ethical or unethical behavior, as well as shared some thoughts on how driving employees’ behavior towards honest conducts.

In “Part V” of our series we will share additional findings reached by further experiments on memory and how these discoveries may help companies enhance its impact on corporate culture.

[1] ARIELY, Dan. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – especially Ourselves. New York: Harper, 2012, p. 34/40.

[2] ARIELY, Dan. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – especially Ourselves. New York: Harper, 2012, p. 38/42.