Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
40. Lamps and sunglasses:
detection theory, controlitis and the spotlight test
What do cheats have in common? They all believe they can keep their cheating secret. What
do cheats who get caught have in common? They wrongly believed that they could keep their
cheating secret. They thought they could get away with it, but eventually they ran into trouble.
Sometimes cheats are brought to light by unfortunate events. This happened to Barry, who
worked as a parking attendant at a museum for twelve years. When he left at the age of ifty,
he had made it to a management position. So far no one suspected anything. Shortly after his
departure, the parking lot takings increased signiicantly. Strange, because no more people
were parking, and the charges had not risen. The investigation which followed led to Barry.
He had found a loophole in the system. When he had been in service for approximately seven
years, he came up with the idea of asking his colleagues to empty the parking meters, claiming
that otherwise they would not work properly. The money picked up was to be delivered to
him, so that he could pay it into the museum bank account. In reality he pocketed some of
it. The sums he took increased over time, reaching 190,000 euros in total. Barry received a
prison sentence and had to return the money.
Research by Donald Cressey among 300 managers and employees sentenced to prison for
fraud shows that they all thought they could get away with it. Cressey’s indings support
‘detection theory’, which states that the chance of transgressions decreases as the chance
of detection increases. When people contemplate behaving improperly, they take into
account the likelihood of their actions coming to light. This means that the lower the chance
of getting caught, the greater the chance of transgressions, as people show their true
colors. According to this theory, a person’s face is recognized in the light and his character
in the dark.
Henry Schneider’s undercover research shows how visibility affects behavior. In his
experiment he offered 40 different garages a car to repair. This car had ive evident and urgent
defects: a loose battery cable, too little cooling luid, a broken rear light, a leaky exhaust pipe,
and a loose sparkplug wire. The car was otherwise in great shape.
40. Lamps and sunglasses: detection theory, controlitis and the spotlight test