Todd Martin's Reviews > The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely
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Jan 04, 2013

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bookshelves: environment-science
Read from December 30, 2012 to January 04, 2013

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves isn’t so much about lying, but about cheating. Who cheats, when and by how much, and factors that encourage and discourage cheating. Ariely, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, describes the results of experiments that he and his colleagues have performed examining this topic.

In a typical example, a test subject will be exposed to some external factor that the experimenters wish to examine (such as the behavioral effect of signing an honor pledge) before taking a test for which they are paid in proportion to the number of correct answers. Except, and here’s how the experimenter’s evaluate honesty, the student is allowed to grade their own work. Ariely then measures the difference between the actual number of right answers and the number that student self-reports as correct. He then determines the affect that the factor had on the student’s honesty (in this case, signing the pledge reduced cheating).

Ariely writes in a lively manner and, unlike many academics, actually has a sense of humor. In addition, his results are interesting and in some instances non-intuitive. For example, people who wore sunglasses they were told were cheap knock-offs were found to cheat more than those who wore identical glasses but were told they were an expensive designer brand. Ariely hypothesizes that perpetration of a minor fraud (wearing knock-off sunglasses) may serve as a slippery slope to obloquy.

Although his results are interesting, I’m skeptical about some of Ariely’s conclusions as well as his suggestions for reducing cheating in the real world. As a soft science, behavioral studies must necessarily be taken with a grain of salt. Performance in a test lab doesn’t predict behaviors in the immeasurably more complex external world.

For example … Ariely says that people who are creative cheat more than those who are not. But “creativity” is a complex behavior, not a single characteristic of the brain that can be isolated and measured. Asking people whether they think of themselves as creative or circling adjectives that describe themselves as creative doesn’t mean they are creative. If his results bore out in reality we would expect our jails to quickly become overpopulated by artists, musicians and science fiction writers.

In another example, Ariely states that religious customs such as the Catholic confessional or recitation of prayer would reduce incidences of cheating. But this is belied by the evidence. Religious countries such as the US have far higher crime rates than non-religious countries such as Sweden. Even within the US, states within the bible belt have higher crime rates than other parts of the country. Finally, prisoners have a higher incident of religiosity than the US population as a whole.

It’s highly unlikely that easy answers exist to a problem as complex as the ethical code of an entire society. Ariely seems to think that a symbolic act, like swearing to tell the truth on a holy book, will have a magical influence on honesty (as if the courts haven’t tried this already). Reality just isn’t that simple. Hanging a motivational poster on the wall improves the productivity of a workforce about as much as a monument to the 10 commandments on the courthouse steps reduces an area’s crime rate (i.e. none at all). If such things were true we would indeed be living in a world far different from the one that exists today (though I’m not sure one populated by mechanistic simpletons would be in any way desirable).

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