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Accurate and honest declarations

Published on 22 January 2020

Early declarations

There is a convention to place a declaration at the end of an application form; a practice endorsed by the legal concept requiring contracting parties to ‘subscribe’ to a statement of fact or intention at the end (and often every page) of a contract or other legal document. Influenced by this civil law convention, application form designers place truth-declarations at the end, perhaps assuming that the applicant who provides false information could be affected either by guilt or heightened awareness to amend or abandon their application.

Research evidence has challenged this convention and suggests that signing a counter-fraud declaration at the start of their application increases truth telling. The principle here is that most people think of themselves as honest and wish to act consistently with that image of their own moral values. This means that the application process designer can encourage greater honesty by reminding the applicant at key points of their own desire to act honestly (Behavioural Insights Team, 2012). Analogous to swearing to tell the truth before giving testimony in a law court, an early declaration makes truth-telling salient in a person’s mind as they provide information as fact.

Researchers at Princeton worked with a car insurance company testing whether a preceding-declaration would impact on the accuracy of odometer and anticipated annual mileage figures reported by prospective policy-holders. Those drivers who signed a declaration before providing information reported 10% higher mileages, incurring a greater policy cost to them on average $97. The researchers argue that placing declarations of truth at the end of a form is too late to engage the person in a meaningful moral dialogue as to whether to provide true or false information. Instead, they either suppress thoughts around the moral standards of their lying or invent false justifications to preserve their positive self-image (Shu L., 2012).

A good example of this principle in practice can be found in the Personal Independence Payment application form (see Appendix 1 - Personal Independence Payment). This application form used by the Department for Work and Pensions places a truth declaration in Step 1.