Trevor'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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's review
Sep 04, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: behavioural-economics, psychology

This might save you needing to read the book -

And this is the cartoon version -

A few years ago I read Predictably Irrational – a book that remains one of my favourite books on Behavioural Economics. The research reported in that book has just about everything going for it – it is amusing, fascinatingly interesting, clever and fundamentally undermines the core dogma of our age, that we are economically rational agents acting purely on the basis of our own enlightened self-interest.

His next book, The Up-side of Irrationality wasn’t nearly as good, but it did report his 'outsourced research' conducted in India on the effects of providing large bonus pay for performance. Which is something that is better explained in Dan Pink’s book Drive. All the same, this research alone is worth the price of the book. It does much to explain the current mess we are in and even gives some indication of what we might want to do to get back out of that mess.

His latest book, this one, is probably a better read than the last one, but suffers from the fact that I’ve now heard most of this research before. However, where this book really succeeds is in how it goes about explaining the consequences of this research - that is, in the story it tells.

Essentially, we are all cheaters. The thing is that we do not cheat at every opportunity, as standard economic theory might have us predict, but rather, we cheat just enough so that we can go on considering ourselves to be overall ‘good people’. This is why we are less likely to cheat when reminded of the Ten Commandments or even other ethical frameworks that we don't even believe in. This is also why you might have more luck in retrieving money you left in a communal fridge than a can of coke you left there. People tend to be less ‘moral’ with the greater distance from money the thing they are ‘borrowing’ has. This also includes ‘cheating’ on tests and tax returns when the end result will be us being given money.

But the most interesting research in this book, I thought, was that conducted with people who were told they were wearing fake or real designer sunglasses. Dan found that if you thought you were wearing fake sunglasses you were more likely to cheat on other tests they got you to take. The reason being that such sunglasses are purchased as a kind of display of status – meant to display of the wealth of the owner. Wearing fake sunglasses of this type – ridiculously expensive bits of plastic purely designed as status symbols – is a kind of lie, but unlike other lies we tell ourselves, it is a soul destroying one. If we take the can of coke from the fridge it is an act which is over in no time and we can probably rationalise our action – remembering back to the time we lost food from a communal fridge or something similar. But with fake designer sunglasses you are constantly reminded of the fact that you are a fraud, the crime never goes away, is always present to us and our sense of self, as the only point of the sun glasses is to display something we are not as if we were. And this has a bad effect on our likely attitude to other situations requiring some moral fortitude. We are much more likely to say, oh, bugger it, why not? Essentially, Ariely is arguing the slippery slope.

Like I said, a lot of this book has been said before, but this does frame the research in very interesting ways and I think the narrative structure works well. This was a fun read – but Predictably Irrational is still his best book.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
September 4, 2012 – Shelved
September 4, 2012 – Shelved as: behavioural-economics
September 4, 2012 – Shelved as: psychology
September 4, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Tatiana (new)

Tatiana I'd like to approach this subject from the point of view that I want to be honest. I accept and recognize that Ariely is right that our propensity is to cheat a little bit in small ways and still think of ourselves as honest. But I want to really become completely and transparently honest in every way. I think it's just a really good idea to do that. I want not to fool myself. I want to feel that solid confidence in myself that I can count on me to do what's right. And I'd like for those who know me to realize and be able to have faith that I'll always do that. So how can I set myself up to be as honest and I can possibly be? How do I change my own internal reward structure to keep me as aligned with truth, honor, justice, etc? How do I consistently train myself always to choose what's right?

I have always thought that empathy is a large part of it. I try to encourage my mirror neurons, or whatever structures there are in my brain that let me think of how others feel, what it's like to be them, to let my happiness mirror that of others upon whom I have any sort of impact. But Ariely doesn't seem to consider that factor in his research at all. I wonder why not?

What I get from this talk is that I need to:

1. Constantly remind myself of my moral standards. (e.g. the Ten Commandments exercise he mentioned.)

2. Think of my in-group as being the honest ones. Identify with those who are honest. See it as defining who we are. See it as what we good people do. Think of anyone who cheats even a little as being outside my in-group. (This could be a source of self-righteousness, and shunning, actually. I probably need to examine this item more, and decide if it is the right approach after all.)

3. Confess, assess, repent, come clean, get a new start as often as possible, even of any tiny hints of dishonesty or temptations to cheat just a little bit. Begin again every day, every week, even every few hours. Realize that as a human, I'm vulnerable to this like everyone. That I can mess up. That I need to make reparations and set things right when I do.

4. Be very careful of conflicts of interests. Notice when our self-interest leads us to shift our views in various directions. Recuse ourselves when we need to do that.

I wonder if these procedures would work not just for honesty but also for kindness, tact, humility, listening, or other qualities we might want to develop in ourselves? These are very interesting ideas. Can anyone think of more that I missed?

Trevor I've recently rediscovered Marx's Thesis on Feuerbach. The problem we have is that we want to understand this stuff as if we were individuals, as if these were intellectual questions that require intellectual solutions, rather than practical and social questions. This is where Ariely ultimately falls down for me - the tests and experiments he does are generally (not always) done on individuals, but we are social animals. This is why the 10 commandments works, I think - even for atheists - the commandments suddenly remind us when we are about to do our most individual action (as measured by our own self-interest) that we belong in a society.

I've given up blaming other people for their transgressions - the alternative would be a very lonely life - rather, and like Marx, I think these questions are practical questions, rather than scholastic ones. How can we create situations where people will be more likely to choose well than to choose poorly. In that case perhaps a better book to read - even though it is written by self-confessed neoliberals - is Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

I suspect what I've just written may make no sense at all - but if you look up Marx's insanely hard thesis on Feuerbach read particularly the first three and the last four. I think they have interesting things to say about all this.

Rather than focusing on what you can do personally, perhaps the question is how can we make it harder for us to act in ways that are morally repugnant - and what is it to be morally repugnant in the first place? With Marx, I think these are primarily practical questions, rather than ones that can be answered once and for all time by asserted universal principals.

message 3: by Tatiana (new)

Tatiana My interest is also very practical, but I want to start by controlling or influencing the one person over whose actions I have the most control, you know.

I do agree that blaming others for their transgressions is less effective than studying them scientifically for ideas about what circumstances encourage or discourage transgressions. I'd like to know more about this partly because it gives us insight into how we can rehabilitate even hardened, violent criminals in society and hopefully gradually bring them back into the fold of community. It also gives insight into how dishonesty and criminal behavior perhaps come about to begin with, and how we can structure society to alienate fewer people, rescue more at-risk youth, and so on.

Trevor I think that is my problem in some ways, Tatiana, the stuff about knowing how to control the one person I ought to be most able to control. Ariely's examples are all fairly clear right and wrong things, I guess. People cheat on tests or steal pencils, that sort of thing. But the actions I have done that deeply trouble me, for instance, aren't as easy to fit into right and wrong binaries. Sometimes I think of things I've done as being almost too painful to remember - but other times I can see the very same things as the outcome of the circumstances at the time and it is hard to know if or how I would behave any differently. And these can be the same time - sometimes I can feel terrible and not have a clue what else I could have done. And sometimes I look back on things I've done and can hardly believe that it was me that did them. I'm being too vague, I know. I admit that I've stolen pens from places I've worked and that I don't really feel all that bad about having done that. But the things that I feel worst about are much less clear cut in their moral implications. I'm not sure I could merely follow Kant's categorical imperative, say, and be sure I'd acted in the right way with that sort of stuff.

This moral ambiguity was one of the problems I had when I worked as an Industrial Officer for a trade union. People would get themselves into trouble in their job and I might be able to save their job. But really all too often I was saving them for what would become months of torment before they would finally leave anyway. Where is the morally right action in there? Sometimes I would think that the best thing that could happen for the person would be for them to lose their job and be out of the harm that their boss was going to continue to cause them.

The most basic notion of morality is to not take one's freedom at the expense of someone else's freedom - but is that even possible? Can we even eat without damaging other creatures, even as vegetarians? And given that virtually every product we buy is produced in appalling conditions in third world countries... Living an honest and true life becomes a real nightmare as soon as you start thinking about it.

Trevor Of course, the point of this research is that we are highly unlikely to know we are deceiving ourselves and are likely to believe we are scrupulously honest both with ourselves and with others.

Other books on this theme, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts for instance, provide ways to identify when we are likely to make these kinds of cognitive errors and therefore be protected from them. None of those ways involve relying on one's character or sense of self. I really would recommend some of these books - The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making for instance, or Thinking, Fast and Slow. I think they provide useful insights into the human condition.

message 7: by Hal (new) - added it

Hal Just a quick one: I noticed that the links to the RSA videos don't seem to work any longer, here are the new links to the normal and animated version, respectively:

Trevor Thanks for this Hal - I will replace the ones above - amusing they would brake their own links. I'm sure they would find some way to justify their bad decision though.

message 9: by Hal (new) - added it

Hal Certainly -- in line with Ariely's findings :-)

message 10: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Fascinating.

To trivialise, I guess "Trust me, my sunglasses aren't fake" should be at least as good as "Trust me, I'm a doctor".

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