Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially OurselvesThe Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A prominent psychologist shares his insights into the causes of humankind's tendency to cheat - something we all do, whether we admit it to ourselves or not.
Diogenes couldn't find an honest man, and neither can Duke professor Dan Ariely - though with a bit of prodding and a few reminders to the better angels of our nature, Ariely thinks we can make improvements. We're neither as good as we hope, nor as bad as we fear: "It's not that 98 percent of people are immoral or will cheat anytime the opportunity arises; it's more likely that most of us need little reminders to keep ourselves on the right path" (p. 38).

Through a series of experiments with volunteers, Ariely tests the causes and limitations of people's propensity toward fudging facts and justifying our bad behavior afterward. His findings are fascinating and challenging, as he concludes that "certain forces - such as the amount of money we stand to gain and the probability of being caught - influence human beings surprisingly less than one might think. And at the same time other forces influence us more than we might expect: moral reminders, distance from money, conflicts of interest, depletion, counterfeits, reminders of our fabricated achievements, creativity, witnessing others' dishonest acts, caring about others on our team, and so on" (p. 238).

Some of the most intriguing findings are in a chapter called "Why We Blow It When We're Tired," where Ariely tests Roy F. Baumeister's ideas about "ego depletion" (aka decision fatigue), which says that willpower is like a muscle we can tire out with use. Baumeister writes about his ideas with John Tierney in Willpower (there is also a fascinating article by Tierney in the New York Times).

The cumulative consequences of cheating (even just a little bit!) are huge for society, and Ariely points to the financial crises of last decade as proof. Ariely's tone is light and fun, but he still warns that "Passed from person to person, dishonesty has a slow, creeping, socially erosive effect" (p. 214). Much of his insight made me remember all the lessons from my parents and pastors, and Ariely makes the point that many religious rituals are designed to prevent a fall down the slippery slope of dishonesty.

The (Honest) Truth is a great companion to Ariely's previous books, Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. It's a book that may change the way you think - but only if you're honest with yourself.

"Once we start violating our own standards (say, with cheating on diets or for monetary incentives), we are much more likely to abandon further attempts to control our behavior - and from that point on there is a good chance that we will succumb to the temptation to further misbehave." - 130

"High-fashion companies aren't the only ones paying a price for counterfeits. Thanks to self-signaling and the what-the-hell effect, a single act of dishonesty can change a person's behavior from that point onward. What's more, if it's an act of dishonesty that comes with a built-in reminder (think about fake sunglasses with a big 'Gucci' stamped on the side), the downstream influence could be long-lived and substantial. Ultimately, this means that we all pay a price for counterfeits in terms of moral currency; 'faking it' changes our behavior, our self-image, and the way we view others around us." - 135

"We have an incredible ability to distance ourselves in all kinds of ways from the knowledge that we are breaking the rules, especially when our actions are a few steps removed from causing direct harm to someone else." - 184

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