The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone --- Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely
Published in June of 2012.
I'm trying to decide if the mounting evidence of our irrationality, poor decision making, and now even dishonesty is depressing or liberating. Reading Ariely's previous books meant accepting the fact that we will make bad decisions, and what we learn from his latest book is that given half a chance we will also lie about our actions.
Ariely is the master of the small scale experiment. The experimental theme that runs through The Honest Truth About Dishonesty is the matrix / shredder procedure. There are many variations of this experiment, but the basic process goes like this:
- Give an experimental and control group a task of solving very hard matrix equations.
- In the control group figure out the average number of matrix equations that a given group, under certain circumstances, will solve.
- Have the experimental group shred their matrix test sheets, and self-report the answers.
- Pay people a reward based on the number of answers that they get correct (either actual correct answers or reported answers after shredding.
- The difference between the scores of the control and the experimental group is the degree to which people lie.
With this basic experimental setup it is possible to test all sorts of different variations on what makes us tell the truth and what makes us dissemble. Does having a campus honesty and integrity policy matter? (The answer seems to be no). Does requiring that participants acknowledge that they are bound by the campus integrity policy (even if one does not exist) change behavior? (Yes). Does being watched by an observer make people more honest? (Yes). Can people be led to be more dishonest if they think those around them are also cheating? (Yes).
What is most amazing about Ariely's matrix / shredder experiment (and many others discussed in the book) is that everyone lies.
People don't lie a lot. But we all lie by a little. Ariely thinks that we all have an internal fudge factor - an amount that we will cheat just a little bit so that we can retain our internal view that we are good and honest people, but at the same time accrue advantages to ourselves. So business people will round up expense reports by a little bit, and even maybe fudge company earning numbers somewhat if doing so will make the bosses happy. Job applicants will slightly overstate career accomplishments. Mechanics will overcharge. Students will cheat (a little). And the fishes that we talk about will always be bigger than the fishes we catch.
The answer to our natural tendency to fudge things is to be very aware that absent conscious effort we are likely to tell small lies. We must make an active choice to always choose exact honesty, and be aware of how easy it is to fool ourselves about our motives and actions.
Ariely's research productivity is truly outstanding. Most academics writing for a popular audience spend most of their time synthesizing the research of others. Ariely seems to have no need, as for almost any given question Ariely has performed an experiment to derive the answer. This is both a strength and a weakness. Ariely is elegant in talking about his own research. But his conclusions would perhaps carry more weight if he connected his work more strongly to writing and research in adjacent disciplines.
If you are an Ariely fan then The Honest Truth About Dishonesty is a real treat.
What are you reading?