WITHIN JUST A FEW BLOCKS from my office, street vendors will sell me a Versace T-shirt or a silk tie from Prada, cheap. Or I could get a deal on a Rolex watch or a chic pair of Ray-Ban shades. These are not authentic brand-name products, of course. They are inexpensive replicas. But they make me look and feel good, and I doubt any of my friends can tell the difference.

That’s why we buy knockoffs, isn’t it? To polish our self-image and broadcast that polished version of our personality to the world—at a fraction of the price. But does it work? After all, we first have to convince ourselves of our idealized image if we are going to sway anyone else. Can we really become Ray-Ban-wearing, Versace-bedecked sophisticates in our own mind, just by dressing up?

New research suggests that knockoffs may not work as magically as we would like. Indeed, they may backfire. Three scientists—Francesca Gino of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University—have been exploring in the laboratory the power and pitfalls of fake adornment. They want to find out if counterfeit labels might have hidden psychological costs, warping people’s actions and attitudes.

In one study, the scientists recruited a large sample of young women and had them wear pricey Chlo sunglasses. The glasses were the real thing, but half the women thought they were wearing knockoffs. The researchers wanted to see if wearing counterfeit shades—a form of dishonesty—might make the women act dishonestly in other ways.

They asked the women to perform a couple of tasks that presented opportunities for lying and cheating. In one, the women worked on a complicated set of mathematical puzzles—a task they could not possibly complete in the time allowed. When their allotted time was up, the women were told to score themselves on the honor system—and to take money for each correct score. Unbeknownst to them, the scientists were monitoring both their work and their scoring.

And guess what? The women who thought they were wearing the fake Chlo shades cheated more—considerably more. Fully 70 percent inflated their performance when they thought nobody was checking on them—and, in effect, stole cash from the coffer. By comparison, “only” 30 percent of the group who knew they wore authentic Chlos cheated.

The Price of Being Phony
To double-check this distressing result, the scientists put the women through a different drill, asking them to indicate whether there were more dots on the right or left side of their screen. Choosing “left” earned them half a cent, and choosing “right” earned them five cents, regardless of whether the answer was correct. In other words, the task forced a choice between a correct answer and the more profitable answer. And again the women wearing what they believed to be knockoffs pocketed the petty cash much more often than did their peers who knew they wore the authentic shades.

Notably, the women wearing supposedly counterfeit goods cheated even though the “fake” sunglasses were randomly handed out, suggesting that it was not something about their self-image going into the study that led them to cheat. To the contrary, it was the very act of wearing the so-called knockoffs that was triggering the dishonesty.

This is bizarre and disturbing, but it gets worse. The psychologists wondered whether illusory image making might not only corrupt personal ethics but also lead to a cynical attitude toward other people. In other words, if wearing counterfeit stuff makes people feel inauthentic and behave unethically, might they see others as phony and unethical, too? To test this, the scientists again handed out genuine and supposedly counterfeit Chlo shades, but this time they had the volunteers complete a survey about “people they knew.” Would these people use an express line with too many groceries? Pad an expense report? Take home office supplies? There were also more elaborate scenarios involving business ethics and a series of statements (“my GPA is 4.0”) that the volunteers had to rate as likely to be true or more likely to be a lie. The idea was that all the answers taken together would characterize each volunteer as having a generally positive view of others—or a cynical one.

The result? Cynical, without question. Compared with volunteers who were wearing authentic Chlo glasses, those who had been told that they were wearing knockoffs saw other people as more dishonest, less truthful and more likely to act unethically in business dealings.

So what’s going on here? Ironically, as the scientists reported in the May issue of Psychological Science, wearing counterfeit glasses not only fails to bolster our ego and self-image the way we hope, it actually undermines our internal sense of authenticity. “Faking it” makes us feel like phonies and cheaters on the inside, and this alienated, counterfeit “self” leads to cheating and cynicism in the real world.

Counterfeiting is a serious economic and social problem, epidemic in scale. Most people buy these fake brand-name items because they are a lot cheaper than the real deal, but this research suggests that a hidden moral cost has yet to be tallied.