Honest mistake or perhaps not: The role of descriptive and injunctive norms on the magnitude of dishonesty

Giannis Lois*, Michele Wessa

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Trivial acts of dishonesty are very prevalent in everyday life and have severe economic and societal consequences. The present study aims to examine the role of descriptive and injunctive norms in minor and major dishonesty under ambiguity. We devised a novel experimental design in which rule violations can be the result of honest mistakes or various dishonest processes. In this ambiguous context, we observed a high prevalence of minor rule violations at baseline. In two experiments, exposure to increased peer cheating (i.e., negative descriptive norms) promoted major rule violations, whereas the presence of explicit or subtle rule reminders (i.e., injunctive norms) marginally reduced minor rule violations but had no impact on major rule violations. We interpret these findings within the framework of social norm theory, self-maintenance theory, and bounded ethicality. Implications regarding policies that target ordinary unethical behavior are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20-34
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Behavioral Decision Making
Issue number1
Early online date24 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021


  • ambiguity
  • descriptive norms
  • injunctive norms
  • minor and major dishonesty
  • LIES


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