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Why Wearing Fakes Makes Us Cheat More [Excerpt]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Think donning an Armani knockoff or phony Prada only hurts the fashion industry? Take another look in the mirror

By Dan Ariely*

This e-book chapter is excerpted from The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely (HarperCollins Publishers, 2012). Used with permission.

Let me tell you the story of my debut into the world of fashion. When Jennifer Wideman Green (a friend of mine from graduate school) ended up living in New York City, she met a number of people in the fashion industry. Through her I met Freeda Fawal-Farah, who worked for Harper’s Bazaar. A few months later Freeda invited me to give a talk at the magazine, and because it was such an atypical crowd for me, I agreed.

I found myself on a stage before an auditorium full of fashion mavens. Each woman was like an exhibit in a museum: her jewelry, her makeup, and, of course, her stunning shoes. I talked about how people make decisions, how we compare prices when we are trying to figure out how much something is worth, how we compare ourselves to others, and so on. They laughed when I hoped they would, asked thoughtful questions, and offered plenty of their own interesting ideas. When I finished the talk, Valerie Salembier, the publisher of Harper’s Bazaar, came onstage, hugged and thanked me—and gave me a stylish black Prada overnight bag.

Book cover for The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty

Image credit: Milan Bozic

I headed downtown to my next meeting. I had some time to kill, so I decided to take a walk. As I wandered, I couldn’t help thinking about my big black leather bag with its large Prada logo. I debated with myself: should I carry my new bag with the logo facing outward? That way, other people could see and admire it (or maybe just wonder how someone wearing jeans and red sneakers could possibly have procured it). Or should I carry it with the logo facing toward me, so that no one could recognize that it was a Prada? I decided on the latter and turned the bag around.

Even though I was pretty sure that with the logo hidden no one realized it was a Prada bag, and despite the fact that I don’t think of myself as someone who cares about fashion, something felt different to me. I was continuously aware of the brand on the bag. I was wearing Prada! And it made me feel different; I stood a little straighter and walked with a bit more swagger. I wondered what would happen if I wore Ferrari underwear. Would I feel more invigorated? More confident? More agile? Faster?

I continued walking and passed through Chinatown, which was bustling with activity. Not far away, I spotted an attractive young couple in their twenties taking in the scene. A Chinese man approached them. “Handbags, handbags!” he called, tilting his head to indicate the direction of his small shop. After a moment or two, the woman asked the Chinese man, “You have Prada?”

The vendor nodded. I watched as she conferred with her partner. He smiled at her, and they followed the man to his stand.

The Prada they were referring to, of course, was not actually Prada. Nor were the $5 “designer” sunglasses on display in his stand really Dolce&Gabbana. And the Armani perfumes displayed over by the street food stands? Fakes too.

From Ermine to Armani

Going back a way, ancient Roman law included a set of regulations called sumptuary laws, which filtered down through the centuries into the laws of nearly all European nations. Among other things, the laws dictated who could wear what, according to their station and class. For example, in Renaissance England, only the nobility could wear certain kinds of fur, fabrics, laces, decorative beading per square foot, and so on, while those in the gentry could wear decisively less appealing clothing. (The poorest were generally excluded from the law, as there was little point in regulating musty burlap, wool, and hair shirts.) People who “dressed above their station” were silently, but directly, lying to those around them. And those who broke the law were often hit with fines and other punishments.

What may seem to be an absurd degree of obsessive compulsion on the part of the upper crust was in reality an effort to ensure that people were what they signaled themselves to be; the system was designed to eliminate disorder and confusion. Although our current sartorial class system is not as rigid as it was in the past, the desire to signal success and individuality is as strong today as ever.

When thinking about my experience with the Prada bag, I wondered whether there were other psychological forces related to fakes that go beyond external signaling. There I was in Chinatown holding my real Prada bag, watching the woman emerge from the shop holding her fake one. Despite the fact that I had neither picked out nor paid for mine, it felt to me that there was a substantial difference between the way I related to my bag and the way she related to hers.

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-signaling. The basic idea behind self-signaling is that despite what we tend to think, we don’t have a very clear notion of who we are. We generally believe that we have a privileged view of our own preferences and character, but in reality we don’t know ourselves that well (and definitely not as well as we think we do). Instead, we observe ourselves in the same way we observe and judge the actions of 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-signaling at work.

The same principle could also apply to fashion accessories. Carrying a real Prada bag—even if no one else knows it is real—could make us think and act a little differently than if we were carrying a counterfeit one. Which brings us to the questions: Does wearing counterfeit products somehow make us feel less legitimate? Is it possible that accessorizing with fakes might affect us in unexpected and negative ways?

Calling All Chloés

I decided to call Freeda and tell her about my recent interest in high fashion. During our conversation, Freeda promised to convince a fashion designer to lend me some items to use in some experiments. A few weeks later, I received a package from the Chloé label containing twenty handbags and twenty pairs of sunglasses. The statement accompanying the package told me that the handbags were estimated to be worth around $40,000 and the sunglasses around $7,000. (The rumor about this shipment quickly traveled around Duke, and I became popular among the fashion-minded crowd.)

With those hot commodities in hand, Francesca Gino, Mike Norton (both professors at Harvard University), and I set about testing whether participants who wore fake products would feel and behave differently from those wearing authentic ones. If our participants felt that wearing fakes would broadcast (even to themselves) a less honorable self-image, we wondered whether they might start thinking of themselves as somewhat less honest. And with this tainted self-concept in mind, would they be more likely to continue down the road of dishonesty?

Using the lure of Chloé accessories, we enlisted many female MBA students for our experiment. We assigned 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 (in actuality all the products we used were the real McCoy). Finally, in the no-information condition, we didn’t say anything about the authenticity of the sunglasses.

Once the women donned their sunglasses, we directed them to the hallway, where we asked them to look at different posters and out the windows so that they could later evaluate the quality and experience of looking through their sunglasses. Soon after, we called them into another room for another task.

In this task, the participants were given 20 sets of 12 numbers (3.42, 7.32 and so on), and they were asked to find in each set the two numbers that add up to 10. They had five minutes to solve as many as possible and were paid for each correct answer. We set up the test so that the women could cheat—report that they solved more sets than they did (after shredding their worksheet and all the evidence)—while allowing us to figure out who cheated and by how much (by rigging the shredders so that they only cut the sides of the paper).

Over the years we carried out many versions of this experiment, and we repeatedly find that a lot of people cheated by a few questions. This experiment was not different in this regard, but what was particularly interesting was the effect of wearing counterfeits. 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. These results gave rise to another interesting question. Did the presumed fakeness of the product make the women cheat more than they naturally would? Or did the genuine Chloé label make them behave more honestly than they would otherwise?

This is why we also had a no-information condition, in which we didn’t mention anything about whether the sunglasses were real or fake. In that condition 42 percent of the women cheated. That result was between the other two, but it was much closer to the authentic condition (in fact, the two conditions were not statistically different from each other). These results suggest that wearing a genuine product does not increase our honesty (or at least not by much). But once we knowingly put on 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.

Up to No Good

These results led us to another question: if wearing counterfeits changes the way we view our own behavior, does it also cause us to be more suspicious of others? To find out, we asked another group of participants to put on what we told them were either real or counterfeit Chloé sunglasses. This time, we asked them to fill out a rather long survey with their sunglasses on. In this survey, we included three sets of questions. The questions in set A asked participants to estimate the likelihood that people they know might engage in various ethically questionable behaviors such as standing in the express line with too many groceries. The questions in set B asked them to estimate the likelihood that when people say particular phrases, including “Sorry, I’m late. Traffic was terrible,” they are lying. Set C presented participants with two scenarios depicting someone who has the opportunity to behave dishonestly, and asked them to estimate the likelihood that the person in the scenario would take the opportunity to cheat.

What were the results? You guessed it. When reflecting on the behavior of people they know, participants in the counterfeit condition judged their acquaintances to be more likely to behave dishonestly than did participants in the authentic condition. They also interpreted the list of common excuses as more likely to be lies, and judged the actor in the two scenarios as being more likely to choose the shadier option. We concluded that counterfeit products not only tend to make us more dishonest; they also cause us to view others as less than honest as well.

Back to high-fashion companies, what these results suggest is that they aren’t the only ones paying a price for counterfeits. Thanks to self-signaling, a single act of dishonesty can change a person’s behavior from that point onward. What’s more, if it’s an act of dishonesty that comes with a built-in reminder (think about fake sunglasses with a big “Gucci” stamped on the side), the downstream influence could be long-lived and substantial. Ultimately, this means that we all pay a price for counterfeits in terms of moral currency; “faking it” changes our behavior, our self-image, and the way we view others around us.

And what about the Prada bag that started this whole research project? I made the only possible rational decision: I gave it to my mother.

*Dan Ariely is the author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. He is the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jctyler 12:09 pm 06/8/2012


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  2. 2. spelia 2:07 pm 06/8/2012

    Absolutely fascinating! I also want to add that whenever I try on a fake, I feel very uncomfortable. It makes me that I am pretending to be someone I am not!

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  3. 3. dlindorff 4:13 pm 06/8/2012

    A flaw in these studies is that you were limited, it appears at least, to using women who were in the Duke MBA program. I would submit that people who choose to go into business are far more likely than the general population to covet wealth and the accoutrements of success, have a relatively weak set of moral/ethical values (“greed is good”), and are more inclined than most people on average to measure self-worth and the worth of others by their wealth or appearance of wealth. This renders the observations much less significant than if you tried this experiment among a broader population segment. I suspect you would find that among the classes who will never in their lives have the money to buy a Prada bag or a Hermes scarf are pleased as punch to find a fake that looks reasonably like one, and don’t feel like cheaters at all, but rather like a million bucks. Or alternatively, they may feel absolutely no interest in having such products.

    Dave Lindorff

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 4:12 am 06/9/2012

    Yes, ‘dlindorff’ has hit on the fundamental problem with this study. Selective populations do not yield results that can be generalized and appiled to all other populations. Correlation does not establish causation.

    Let’s give all the nuns in a convent new fake designer shoes and see whether they change their behavior in any way…

    The results of this study are most likely the product of the sampled population’s established value systems than any change directly attributable to fake designer apparal.

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  5. 5. syhprum1 6:31 am 06/9/2012

    How in the world can a pair of Sun glasses be worth $100.00 just because they have some fancy name on them?. what is the difference in the manufacturing costs between a $5.00 pair and a $100.00 pair

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  6. 6. hanmeng 12:13 pm 06/9/2012

    I’m pretty frugal. I feel like a fake on those rare occasions I display luxury items.

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  7. 7. BGriffin 12:14 pm 06/9/2012

    There are other problems with this study, aside from the selective population. Particularly, the set up introduces some strong influences for which there does not seem to be any consideration.

    Subjects were ‘lured’ with designer items. Telling some the items are genuine and others that the items are knockoffs creates a very different relationship to the test for one group as opposed to the other. When a participant is told the item they are testing is not genuine, it would not be unreasonable for the participant to infer that the payment promised for their participation would likely also not be a genuine item.

    One group is receiving compensation that is in line with what was originally promised, while the other is receiving something less that what was promised.

    The information provided by the ‘knockoff’ participants is highly likely to be influenced by the personal loss perceived as a result of the disparity promised versus received compensation for their participation.

    Moreover, the test administrators are acting as an authority in this situation. The difference in promised versus actual reward at the outset creates a precedent that dishonesty is an acceptable means to an end.

    It isn’t hard to imagine a participant rationalizing, ‘if they lied to me about the value of the reward for the number of correct answers, am I not justified in attempting to correct that damage by over reporting my number of correct answers?’

    In the second test, it isn’t difficult to imagine the recency of just being deceived concerning brand name versus knockoff goods would make a participant more likely to suspect others of deceptive intent.

    This isn’t just a problem of over reaching final analysis, the entire study is useless, flawed at the outset by a poorly conceived test.

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  8. 8. BGriffin 1:50 pm 06/9/2012

    There is something not quite right with this study…

    Consider this: participants were lured with total of 40 items (20 handbags, 20 sunglasses). I can find no combination of outcomes that would lead to reporting 30%, 74% and 42% that total for a combined number of 40 participants…nor 39, nor 38, nor 37…

    It seems the author either lacks understanding of something very basic (e.g. significant figures), or might have been wearing an excess of knockoff fashion when writing this book. Whatever the excuse, I don’t place a lot of faith in the conclusions.

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  9. 9. BGriffin 2:07 pm 06/9/2012

    …also concerning the above comment, the fact that there was not a statistical difference between 30% and 42% indicates a small sample size, so it is unlikely that the 40 items were leveraged (for example by making the reward ‘a chance to win’) to increase sample size.

    I could be wrong, so if anyone else can see how the data from the test could result in results of 30% (29.5%-30.49%), 42% (41.5% – 42.49%), and 74% (73.5% – 74.49%) from a combined sample size of 40 or less….or any sample size small enough that there is no statistical significance between 30% and 42% assuming standard 0.05 p value, please enlighten me.

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  10. 10. Mikek 10:42 pm 06/9/2012

    The sample size would be 120. The people being tested did not keep or expect to keep the glasses.

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  11. 11. DrSamba 12:41 am 06/10/2012

    Years ago, I used to wear Bausch & Lomb Ray-Bans, and they cost close to $100. I didn’t wear them to impress anyone, I wore them because I believed (wrongly, perhaps) that cheap eyewear would ruin my vision. But I would also take meticulous care of them and keep the same pair until they fell apart, on average ten years. More recently, I wear whatever I can find at the drug store for $10, but they don’t last ten years either. So-called “designer” items do not interest me in the least.

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  12. 12. PsychMouse 6:03 am 06/10/2012

    There are a number of interesting points made in the preceding comments; however, I do feel the need to come to Dan’s defense. First, it should be remembered this is simply a survey study that Dan did, curious about a question prompted by his own experience. It’s an interesting question; in that, if subjects willingly take something into their lives, even if temporary, that may be questionable in nature, does it prompt questionable actions on their parts (even if only for a short term). There were some concerns about the math – the percentages –however, for the nature of the column presented, these are rounded figures, and not to the decimal; so the report that 30% of those given the “authentic” Chloe sunglasses inflated estimations of correct responses, compared with 74% supposedly given the fakes, actually just translates to 6 subjects in the authentic group and approximately 14-15 subjects in the fake group – presuming 20 per group (20 sunglasses from the designer, remember?). We’re not given enough info about the sample sizes, etc to make critical comments about the math; but that’s not the point here, it was simply to give an living and tangible example of how the study worked and its findings. I am sure, Dan, as an excellent experimentalist (and I had the privilege of knowing Dan when at UNC in Chapel Hill) was indeed rigorous in his design and there simply wasn’t enough room in this short blog to report all the details. It is important to also remember when 20 young ladies were taken at random and not given anything but the test, that only 42% (8-9 individuals) over reported their performance. But conclusions should be carefully drawn – if we are going to say that more individuals with fakes inflated their responses, then we could say something about donning designer frames produces a predilection to be more honest than controls (the 30% vs 42%). Maybe having a high-end designer perched on the bridge of their noses prompted more confidence in the women, or even an attitude that “I’ve got a $350 pair of glasses, who cares what you think?” hence, a less inflated answer. By the way, the math abilities of some of the commentators do worry me – 20 sunglasses, valued at $7000 comes to $350 and not $100 for each pair; $350 is a fairly standard price for premiere designer frames. (For a moment I was worried that Chloe was down grading their base – Clinton Kelly almost had a stroke! By the way, this was a joke.)

    So back to Dan’s study; the overall goal of this short article was to point out that our attitudes about ourselves, honesty, how we portray ourselves to the outside world, are not driven only from within but is a malleable and highly plastic feature of ourselves which can be influenced by simple environmental factors. Does this say that the women in the fake group were more prone to dishonesty? Of course not! Nor does it mean wearing premiere fashion lines promotes honesty. But context is the key to understanding why we do, what we do, and when we choose to do it. I could imagine a long line of other interesting controls for this study; do men respond the same way? Is this limited to younger age groups, or would older individuals also be affected? When do we first see this tendency emerge (or even come under more control as we grow older; for example, kids given the Star Wars toys and some told they were the authentic Lego toys, vs some that were just as good, but not made by Lego)? Different occupations or backgrounds (example, at a stock car race, giving folks the driver jackets to wear and some being told they were given Chase Originals as worn by the drivers and pit crews, and others a copy-cat replica of the real jackets), and so on. Also, what about the tendency for us to naturally inflate our own estimations of ourselves? Did the Chloe fake women do this intentionally, or was it subconscious, just as the “real” Chloe women were less like to inflate their own estimations of performance. Exit interviews would help us understand if there was conscious motivation behind the estimated scores. Moreover, would these numbers change if the scores were made more public (for example, to the entire test group and not just the interviewer), and how would this change if you were among friends and individuals you knew, compared to strangers who you may never see again?

    So Dan’s study, I feel was a success – not that it covered every minute detail and every possible question to be asked, but it got the public thinking about the question at hand: what is dishonesty, and how does it figure into daily life; and is it something internal to the individual, something induced by the context we find ourselves in, or a mixture of both? But most importantly, it prompts us to think outside the box about this question, and to do so in a critical manner – which is the essence of science.

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  13. 13. jtdwyer 8:20 am 06/10/2012

    Sorry ‘PsychMouse’, but as I understand, 20 even “randomly” selected volutneer female MBA students do not constitute a representative sampling of even female humanity, and conclusions derived from their responses should not be generalized. There seems to be some very common misunderstandings about proper methodology, especially among psychologists and sociologists…

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  14. 14. Newfiegeo 5:35 pm 06/11/2012

    Could this study be carried into other areas of human psychology. For example, what if someone made a little white lie? What then? Does a lie beget another lie, or perhaps even a bigger lie? Or could it cause unjust mistrust?

    Fantastic concept, I will look forward to following this work!


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  15. 15. BGriffin 1:58 pm 06/12/2012


    I appreciate the time put into your thoughtful response to my criticism of this study. Below, I will provide airtight rebuttals to most of the points use raise in defense of this study. To be fair to the author, after locating a draft of the manuscript online, portion of my criticism was unwarranted.

    First the rebuttals to the points raise in defense of this study:
    >>>’…presuming 20 per group (20 sunglasses from the designer, remember?)…’<<>>’…so the report that 30% of those given the “authentic” Chloe sunglasses inflated estimations of correct responses, compared with 74% supposedly given the fakes, actually just translates to 6 subjects in the authentic group and approximately 14-15 subjects in the fake group …’<<>>’…It is important to also remember when 20 young ladies were taken at random and not given anything but the test, that only 42% (8-9 individuals)…’<<>>’…So Dan’s study, I feel was a success – not that it covered every minute detail and every possible question to be asked, but it got the public thinking about the question at hand…’<<<
    I strongly disagree with your idea about what constitutes 'success' as related to a scientific study. Success by inducing public thought on a question might fall somewhere in the realm of journalism. Off the cuff, I say the success of a scientific study lies in its efficacy as a test of a falsifiable hypothesis.

    And now, for enjoyment of those keen on schadenfreude, a bit of self-flagellation.
    I was overzealous in one part of my criticism of this study. I searched the title online and found a draft of the manuscript….

    (As an aside: this is a fascinating read. I am not comfortable with some design aspects of a few of the experiments or with a couple of the conclusions and inferences, but those areas represent only a minor portion of the book. There is a wealth of solid work documented in this book.)

    (now back to the self-flagellation…)

    Though not explicitly stated, reading the manuscript leads me to believe the designer items were likely not given as compensation for participation. The compensation was most likely limited to the amount received for the number of correct answers reported.

    My suggestion otherwise was unwarranted and should be ignored.

    (…end self-flagellation.)

    (I will look a little later at the maximum size constraints for sample size that would allow 30% and 42% to not be statistically different.)

    *** It is important to distinguish between the one unwarranted criticism and the other criticisms of the study. ***

    The other criticisms should be evaluated independently to understand they stand easily on their own.

    Regardless of whether or not the ownership of the designer items was transferred to study participants, since the study claims the items were used to 'lure' participants, describing the items as either fake or authentic imposes a significantly scenario on the groups.

    The fake group experiences both: a mismatch between what the what was implied to be the lure and what was actually the lure (the participants need not obtain ownership if interaction with the goods was truly sufficient reward to be the draw); and an example set by an authority that lying is an acceptable means to an end (i.e. participation gained at least partially by the lure of designer goods which are revealed not to actually be designer goods).

    The 'real' and 'no-information' groups do not experience that scenario, yet the difference is not something inherent to the use of knockoff goods. The difference is an artifact of a mistake in the study design renders the study devoid of meaningful outcome concerning the 'fake' group.

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  16. 16. BGriffin 2:08 pm 06/12/2012

    Some things were erased while submitting the above comment… specifically in the areas with successive greater-than symbols and successive less-than symbols….. essentially the clump that follows “first the rebuttals…’

    to paraphrase, I made the point that people only come in integers, so 8 or 9 is more accurate than a description of 8 to 9. That said, reporting 74% or 42% does not make sense as those percents (nor anything that rounds to those) do not occur for groups that small.

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  17. 17. unblocktheplanet 4:10 am 06/15/2012

    Although this chapter and the comments so far discuss fake products, it misses the wider element of piracy. While few of us, especially men, seek out designer fakes, a great many of us use The Pirate Bay for our music, movies and TV shows.

    I live in Bangkok where counterfeit designerware is everywhere, some good and some not. But we also don’t have Amazon or Hulu or Netflix.

    Frankly, I think we all have to ask ourselves, if the ‘pirate’ product were unavailable, would we buy a real one. I know my answer already. I’m retired, have limited income and I’d simply do without! So nobody is really losing money in that equation.

    CJ Hinke
    Founding member, The Pirate Party of Canada

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