The Sunglass Experiment and How It Applies to CPE Fraud

Gusto Editors

Why do people cheat?

To help you reflect on the CPA professional values, we partnered with CPA Academy to bring you a webinar titled “Painless December Ethics CPE.” The webinar was hosted by Caleb Newquist, Gusto’s Editor-at-Large, and Greg Kyte, founder of Comedy CPE

Greg Kyte has a unique approach to accounting and continuing professional education. He’s been a stand-up comedian for over a decade, and he brings that humor into his teaching approach to capture his audience’s attention while imparting valuable information. Greg’s healthy dose of wittiness and irony provides accounting professionals with a lighter perspective on the industry.

In this article, you’ll learn about an experiment in which the perception of fake vs. real fashion designer sunglasses played a part in people’s behavior. By learning from the Sunglasses Experiment, you’ll be able to bolster your own integrity so you can ethically take CPE online courses or behave honestly at work.

The Chloe sunglasses experiment

Caleb and Greg shared a fascinating behavioral science experiment that shows just how insidious unethical behavior can be. As they’ve discussed before, cheating, lying, and other moral transgressions occur with much more regularity than we’d like to think. Pretty much everyone cheats and lies just a little in their daily life, even if it’s just white lies in a conversation.

Not only that, but people’s behavior depends on their surroundings and their self-perceptions. For example, if people read a moral code—such as a passage from the Bible—right before engaging in an act in which they could be deceptive, they’re more likely to act in honest ways, even if they don’t believe in the code. People want to be seen and see themselves as honest, and just by reflecting on that code, integrity becomes top-of-mind.

Young businessman conducting a business training for participants.

Similarly, when we believe we’re being judged and watched, we act more generously. We need others to see us as honest and fair—being accepted and deemed honest has a big part to play in our survival. To succeed in business and relationships, we act according to what the herd will think of us.

The same goes for unethical behavior. We’re highly suggestible to outside influences and are more likely to commit small-scale infractions if other people around us are doing it. The “Sunglasses Experiment” Greg brought up clearly demonstrates that we’re easily swayed by the unethical behavior around us.

Dan Ariely, behavioral scientist and author, conducted an experiment to see how people’s unethical behavior impacts others. He gave one group of people a pair of luxury Chloe sunglasses (they were real) and told them that they were the real deal. He then had them take an exam. He did the same with a second group to whom he gave no backstory about the sunglasses. Then he worked with a third group, but this time, he told them that they were knock-off glasses. 

“[To] the first group, he said … ‘These are authentic Chloe sunglasses. These came straight from the designer. We want you to put them on, walk around the room and then fill out a little tiny survey about what you [think] about the quality of them.’ Then … he had them take the quiz. … [He did the] same thing [to the second group]. … But to them, he said, ‘Hey. … These look like Chloe sunglasses, but they’re knockoffs. These were confiscated on a shipment from another country. … They’re not really Chloe. We want you to put these on … fill [out] a little survey about what you think about the quality of these.’ Then right after that, [they took the test].”

– Greg Kyte

The results were compelling. People who were given the backstory that the glasses were authentically cheated at a rate of 32% on the test. Those who were given no backstory cheated at a rate of 42%, but 72% of the people who were told that the glasses were fake cheated.

What does this mean? Greg and Caleb argued that it shows how when we’re exposed to cheating, we’re primed for cheating. When we simply witness someone else’s unethical act, we’re more likely to engage in our own unethical behavior, whether we’re conscious of it or not. In fact, it’s most likely that we’re not conscious of it. Somehow, seeing deceptive behavior lowers our guard on some level, making us more able to accept or justify the behavior. 

“When I read all the stuff about the sunglasses, it almost felt like an evil witch had put a curse of unethical behavior on these sunglasses for people to use because they just had to touch these cursed sunglasses, and then all of a sudden, they’d become horrible people.”

– Greg Kyte

On some level, people are only as ethical as those around them are. We measure our behavior against other people’s behavior.

“I think it comes back to … your self-perception of your ethics. Because you’re going, ‘Well, I cheated on a couple of questions on this test, but I’m not making knockoffs. I’m not stealing thousands and thousands of dollars by taking advantage of somebody else’s brand that I knocked off.’ I think that must be something that’s [happening] in the subconscious.”

– Greg Kyte

In many ways, the results of the experiment make sense. People created moral codes and ethics—they didn’t just appear out of thin air. Therefore, it’s people and the model they provide that guides our actions. Self-centered behavior may be the unconscious default behavior for many people unless someone gives them social guidelines that help reduce it. On the other hand, people can inspire altruistic actions by modeling them.

Do CPEs need to worry about cheating?

Manager with papers reading points of his report to colleagues at work.

Just because we all have the capacity to cheat or lie doesn’t mean we’re all unethical people. Accountants can be some of the most considerate and honest people out there. As professionals who guide clients through life-changing financial decisions, they are service-minded and rooted in good values. However, some CPEs can and do engage in dishonest behavior.

One of the reasons CPEs cheat is because of how easy it is to do. This is particularly true when it comes to education and earning CPE credits. Greg shared an experiment he did on himself to see if he could pass a CPE course test without even trying.

“I just clicked through all the slides as quickly as I could. I [went] through all 50 or 60 slides so I could take the quiz. Then, when I took the quiz, I didn’t read the questions. I just answered A, A, A, A, A, and then it gave me my score. … You could retake the quiz as many times as you needed to. So I’d go, ‘Oh, I got 20%.’ Then I’d [answer] B, A, A. … I didn’t read a word of the thing. It took me nine minutes to finish a 50-minute CPE course without reading anything in the entire course at all.”

– Greg Kyte

The fact that he could pass the test without ever learning the material is alarming. More alarming is how easy it was to do. But in the end, those who cheat do themselves a disservice. Not only is it unethical, it means you’ll be less equipped to serve clients well and with integrity. 

Unfortunately, it’s all too common. Greg said it’s ubiquitous to see cheating in CPE coursework. After publicly writing about this topic, Greg noticed many people writing in with their own stories of unethical CPE behavior.

“People just start telling their stories of people cheating on CPE. One of the guys said when he was an intern, I believe at a big four firm, he was in a car going to an engagement with the engagement partner. While they’re in the car driving, the partner call[ed] his wife, who [was] also a CPA. He ask[ed] her on the phone, in front of everybody, how she did on the ethics CPE class that she just took for him.”

– Greg Kyte

Clearly, even people at the top are guilty of skirting around requirements or avoiding testing altogether! Others are blatant and shameless with their cheating.

“There’s a story of a guy who got 40 hours of CPE in a 24-hour period. He was cheating so hard that he literally broke the space-time continuum with his cheating. He says, ‘I have no problem using nine minutes to pass a 50-minute CPE. Heck, I do this for sexual harassment and IT security training and tests at work, and I still score 90% plus correct. There are no new topics in ethics. You can answer every question by following one very simple rule: Don’t do stupid things. Anything that can go wrong is a result of negligence, indifference, hubris, arrogance, and greed.’”

– Greg Kyte

While this particular cheater may have made some good points about ethics, he still blatantly blew through his coursework without actually learning anything. In his egotistical belief that he didn’t have anything new to learn, he could have missed out on important information.

How you can avoid unethical behavior in business

Dan Ariely’s experiment showed that simple exposure to unethical behavior—even if it has nothing to do with you or the situation you’re in—can influence more unethical behavior. Greg and Caleb argued that this means an individual’s behavior in one area of their life can influence other areas of their life. 

Businessman stands to address meeting around board table.

Therefore, Greg’s ethics hack goes as follows: If you want to be ethical in arena A, also be ethical in arenas B through Z. 

“If you cheat in one area of your life, it is going to prime you [for cheating]. It doesn’t mean that if you cheat here, you’re for sure going to cheat there. But … the research definitely says, if you cheat here, it’s going to make you more susceptible to cheating in other areas of your life.”

– Greg Kyte

Just think about how unethical behavior makes you feel. How do you view yourself when you engage in it? Does it feel like a slippery slope into more bad behavior? The way we perceive ourselves influences our behavior. Let’s say you go to a coffee shop, and the cashier gives you back too much change. Instead of saying something, you let it slide. It isn’t a terrible act, but it’s not honest. Believe it or not, the way you view yourself after this incident could lead to more lies and more dishonesty. It could lead you to lie to a friend or cheat on a test.

To keep yourself in high integrity, don’t discount the impact of minor, seemingly inconsequential actions. Hold yourself to high standards at all times. 

“If you play monopoly with your family [and] you’re the banker, do you slide an extra $500 to yourself? You don’t, because again … even cheating like that is going to prime you for less ethical behavior. … [On the other hand], if you say that one of your core values is ethical behavior, you won’t just have that at work. You’re going to have that everywhere.”

– Greg Kyte

The great thing is that if you maintain high standards across the board, you’ll feel better about yourself, and you’ll be able to trust yourself more, both of which can help you feel more positive in your daily life.

Learn more about the Chloe sunglasses experiment

Behavioral scientists conducted an experiment to see how exposure to unethical behavior affects people. They found that when witnessing others’ bad behavior, they engaged in their own unethical actions at a higher rate. While you may think this has nothing to do with you, the fact is, people regularly cheat, even at work. To keep yourself in high integrity, be honorable in all areas of your life—even ones that seem inconsequential. It will prime you for good behavior across the board.

Did you enjoy this article? Check out the full webinar to learn more. Also, have a look at our other articles based on the same episode: Navigating the Space Between Honesty and Dishonesty in CPA Ethics, CPA Ethics & The Ultimatum Game, The Science of Moral Codes and AICPA Ethics, What Is Ego Depletion and How to Replenish It as a CPA, and How to Build an Ethical Culture at Your CPA Firm.

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