(Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies

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Imagine you’re asked to solve some simple math problems and are offered payment for each correct answer. Then you are allowed to mark your own test, report your own score, and receive the cash without anything being checked. Would you be honest? Would you mark, score, and report correctly? Or would you be tempted to say that you did just a little bit better than you actually did?

Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, has examined results from tens of thousands of individuals who have completed such tests. In a new documentary feature film inspired by his book called (Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies, supported by the John Templeton Foundation, Ariely reports that 70% of the people tested cheat. Some cheat a lot. Others cheat more modestly. But the result is clear: most participants cheat. As the New York Times described one of the take-home messages from the film: “What quickly becomes clear is that the leap from little white lies to insider trading is not that far.”

Woven into the research, the film also tells the moving stories of individuals for whom lying marked or ruined their lives. Some of the stories are entertaining, like the man who, as a youth, gained the admiration of his peers by supporting a friend’s fabricated story of having a bazooka in the house. Some of the stories are alarming, not least when the film reflects on the role dishonesty has played in recent corporate and government scandals. And some of the stories are devastating, as individuals in the worlds of sport and education relate how cheating became a way of life until their fabrications came crashing down.

The science of honesty, seen here through the lens of behavioral economics, is fascinating. It describes a world of truth and lies to which everyone can relate. The struggle to negotiate this maze is a profoundly human experience. For example, Ariely and his team have shown how most people persuade themselves they are honest, even when they know that on occasion they lie. He calls this the “fudge factor,” the idea that we can rationalize all sorts of grey behavior as long as our self-image is not damaged. It may be an exaggeration in an online dating profile, or amplifying an account of your child’s success. If you can tell yourself that everyone does such things, your self-image can remain untarnished.

There’s also the “optimism bias” that affects 80% of the population. These are the false-truths that we maintain about ourselves. It may be that you smoke and believe that you will not develop cancer, or that you believe you are a safer driver than everyone else on the road. The striking result is that the more individuals engage this optimism bias, the more they actually believe these falsehoods to be true.

Through his research, Ariely has identified specific environmental factors that reliably influence an individual’s propensity to be dishonest. For example, when people do not have to look anyone in the eye—such as when using modern technology—they are more likely to be dishonest. In contrast, Ariely has found that when individuals must engage in more explicitly deliberate deception—for example, picking up a golf ball and moving it out of the grass—individuals are more likely to be honest, even when no one is watching.

The good news is that it seems that honesty can also be nurtured. One of the best ways may be to offer individuals modest but frequent reminders that they have moral fiber. There is also work underway that considers how government policies and social designs can encourage honesty. For example, the British government recently began an experiment in which they informed citizens that most people pay their taxes and pay them on time. Simply by having tax payers read this information, the government was able to increase revenue collection.

Ariely concludes that the science of honesty is beginning to establish some building blocks for creating a better world. We can be nudged in a truthful direction. And as Variety remarked in its review of the film, “One suspects that people viewing (Dis)Honesty would be less inclined to lie for at least a few hours afterward, too.”

  • David Wangaard

    It is great to read about JTF support for this type of research. For educators, the Ariely studies should encourage a renewed look at the Four Component Model (FCM) for moral functioning as described by the late James Rest and colleagues along with ongoing publication by Darcia Narvaez. Advancing the recognition of the moral dimensions (moral awareness) of lying /cheating and exposing the rationalizations that can support the deceit (self and others) to strengthen moral commitment/responsibility are among the four components that can be cultivated for effective moral functioning. The other two components (Moral Judgment and Moral Action) complete Rest’s (et al) FCM and merit expanded research to encourage the portion of the population that doesn’t readily lie and cheat. We need to clarify our understanding and reinforce the choices of the 30 percent of the experimental subjects who demonstrated integrity.