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Accurate and honest declarations

Published on 22 January 2020

Understanding choice

Research evidence has increased our understanding of how people make choices, challenging the assumption that, in general, our decisions are rationally calculated. We now believe that most of our decisions are taken automatically, without focussed concentration and calculation (Kahneman, 2011).

The choices that we make are influenced by a number of factors, some of which are internally created e.g. values and emotions, and some are external, having been brought to the attention of the decision maker by their current experience of making the application. In the case of someone considering fraud, these factors can create contradictions or at least a tension as to what is the right thing to do. Awareness of this moral tension creates an opportunity for the application form designer to adopt a range of techniques to emphasise the ‘right thing’ and deter a dishonest applicant.

We know that ‘good’ decisions are most often made when a person has experience of the context and is provided with both good information and prompt feedback. In the absence of these factors, the choices that people make are often poor and contrary to their best interests (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009). As designers of an application form we cannot provide the applicant with previous experience of the application process. However, we can support the other two factors: provide the applicant with good information and prompt feedback.

Question and answer options written in plain, unambiguous language, with key words or terms highlighted in bold will assist the applicant to understand what is required. We can also provide additional explanatory notes that are easily accessible to assist the applicant. In electronic forms, clicking a question mark icon located adjacent to each answer option is ideal for accessing a note of explanation.

Digital forms give the opportunity to provide the applicant with prompt feedback. Where the answer option selected is one that is of high risk to the organisation or is known to be or suspected of being incorrectly selected, the designer can present the applicant with a message requesting they consider again whether this is an accurate selection.

We can also adopt message-frames to reinforce key points that act to counter the innate behavioural biases that drive our decision making. An example is the ‘halo effect’ which makes a message from a liked, attractive or trusted source more believable than from an unknown, disliked or less attractive source. We prefer that our behaviour conforms to social norms and are attracted to adopt the behaviour of most other people.

Understanding biases and using particular message-frames in phrasing questions and accompanying explanatory notes is an effective tool in affecting choices and can be used to reduce fraud.

An interesting example is that we are biased against potential loss to a greater extent than we are motivated by a corresponding potential gain (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009). When people decide from a range of options they establish a ‘reference point’ from which to weigh up whether an offered option is a loss or a gain. Our aversion to loss contributes towards what is called ‘status quo bias’, a psychological mechanism creating inertia that we adopt to protect us from uncertainty and risk.