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Can Thinking About Time Make You A Better Person?

A new study finds that thinking about money makes people more likely to cheat, but thinking about time keeps them honest.

Can Thinking About Time Make You A Better Person?

[Image: Sand via Shutterstock]

Imagine: Briefcases full of cash. Scrooge McDuck diving into his swimming pool vault of gold coins. Winning $100 at a blackjack table. Feeling a little dishonest yet?

Just thinking about getting our grubby little hands on some cold hard cash can make us more likely to cheat, according to a new study in Psychological Science. Oddly enough, thinking about time seems to make people more honest.

In a series of four experiments, Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School—whose previous research has found links between cheating and creativity—and Cassie Mogilner of the Wharton School found that participants primed to think of money were more likely to behave unethically on various lab tasks than those who received a neutral prime. People who were prompted to think about time behaved the most ethically. A little more than 87% of the participants in one of the experiment's money conditions cheated, compared to almost 67% of the control group and around 42% of people in the time condition.

The researchers chalk this effect up to self-reflection, with the notion of time being tied to thinking about how little of it you have—sort of like a mental death countdown clock. Focusing on time "seems to lead people to notice that how they spend their time sums up to their life as a whole, encouraging them to act in ways they can be proud of when holding up this mirror to who they are," they write.

These experiments took place in the lab or through Amazon's Mechanical Turk system, where participants (many of them students) could overreport their performance on a puzzle or other task in exchange for a few extra bucks, with what appeared to be little chance of getting caught. It seems less likely that daydreams of riches would foster cheating to the same degree in a real-life situation with higher stakes than being kicked out of a university study. Still, it's worth filing away the reminder that focusing on piles of cash, real or imaginary, probably isn't going to lead you down the best path in life.