The honest truth about dishonesty - how we lie to others and especially ourselves

Dishonesty is a fickle mistress. Alex Radzyner looks at Dan Ariely's book on the matter and looks at how it relates to the Barclay's scandal

by Alex Radzyner on 9 July 2012 12:36

"Altruistic cheating", Ariely tells us, is a surprisingly widespread phenomenon, because we all like to feel good about ourselves and gain gratitude and social recognition even from those we may only know casually. Of course, altruistic cheating can be just as harmful to trust and confidence as the purely selfish kind - and just as criminal.

Ariely's book is a timely contribution to explaining the psychological factors both favouring and disfavouring dishonesty and corruption. We ignore these factors at our peril.

One of the remarkable findings from the experimental approach taken by Ariely and his colleagues is that money and materialistic greed are often not the most important drivers of dishonesty. Moreover, even where they are, our "cognitive flexibility" and creativity allows us to convince ourselves that we are not actually being unacceptably dishonest or corrupt, as long as we do not overstep a line that we all draw, fudge and maintain in our mind.

That line does move.

In some cases this tendency will go so far that something we initially were aware of as being a lie, when repeated by us over the years and believed by others becomes a truth even to ourselves. This for instance happens not infrequently when people have successfully lied on their CV about the qualifications they have attained. As they repeat the lie they can end up believing it. Another surprising finding that Ariely speaks about as he describes his experiments is that group-working can actually favour dishonesty and corruption, particularly when the people in the group get on very well with each other.

On the plus side, experiments show that timely moral reminders, whether of a religious or secular nature, reduce our propensity to cheat.

A group of students (some religious, some atheist) who were given the 10 commandments to read before doing an exam took much less advantage of opportunities to cheat than the control group which had not been given any moralistic text to read. The opportunity to "confess" again in a religious and not religious context, also helped people to find the way back to the straight and narrow, once they had slid down a slippery slope of increasing levels of cheating.

Where this opportunity what not given the "what-the-hell-effect" set in and offences increased in frequency and seriousness. Form design can make a big difference: people asked to sign that they will not cheat before filling in a form (tax form or insurance claim for example) are more likely to fill it out honestly, than people signing the form after they have filled it in. As one would expect, seeing other people cheat when they have the opportunity to do so does have an infectious negative effect. Being controlled by a person one does not know at all does have a strong deterrent effect.

The model that Ariely thinks best describes how you and I deal with cheating and lying is that we all like to benefit from dishonesty, but only to the extent that we can look ourselves in the mirror and think that we are okay.  So most of us apply our creativity and cognitive flexibility to navigate the grey zone between these two desires. 

More research is no doubt needed to confirm and expand on the various hypotheses and theories relating to how people who consider themselves honest manage to justify a certain degree cheating and lying. 

Ariely has written a thoughtful, entertaining and very readable book which can surely add much needed insight to hotly debated and polarising topics. As a consultant to the UK Treasury's Behavioural Economics Unit, his ideas may find their way into UK government policy. Not a bad thing that would be, too.

Alex Radzyner is the author of the 'London Theatre Goer Blog'

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