The Truth About Dishonesty

August 18, 2012 04:26 1 comment

Dan Ariely is a professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University. His two other books that read were Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality attempted to explain behavioral economics to the lay person. Economics has always worked with the assumption that people make rational decisions to maximize their gains and minimize losses. The Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahnemann showed us that decision making is not all that rational. Don’t miss the review of his book Thinking Fast And Slow <click here>

Dan Ariely’s first book Predictably Irrational was a blockbuster. The provocative title screams at you and says, “You are irrational and I can predict it.” That was followed by The Upside of Irrationality. Why do we procrastinate? Why can we not stick to a diet? Why do we not do what we KNOW is good for us. The answer to both the questions may lie in the latest book by Dan Ariely - The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone – Especially Ourselves.

The book explores many aspects about dishonesty. Cheating is not about the few bad apples in a society of people like us who are all otherwise honest. We all are dishonest in small ways, but continue to maintain a positive view of ourselves. This is the threshold of dishonesty we are comfortable with. Beyond that we start to squirm. Dan talks about the high incidence of “grandmothers dying” when there is a mid term exam or term paper due. The students who are not doing well academically are more likely to seek an exemption from the Professor because of this reason. The book is full of such examples of everyday instances that will resonate with you where you will see that none of us are immune to the temptation of cheating, lying a dash of dishonesty.

is there any situation at all when being dishonest is good? Hmm… think of the time when you go to the dentist for a root canal and ask her if it will hurt? “Not really … just for a moment!”, she says. That’s a lie that helps you muster courage to stay taped to the dentist’s chair. In the book Dan talks about the numerous instances when a conflict of interest may encourage your dentist to prescribe a more expensive crown or a procedure just because they have bought a new piece of equipment. Or in some cases, they need one more case study to write the paper for that fancy journal. Basically, temptation drives dishonesty. So the more clearly you stay away or better still put it away from your senses, the more likely you will stay honest.

Ever wondered why telemarketers market all their wares over late night television. That is because by the end of the day you are tired and your defenses are down. You just want to go to sleep but not before you place an order for that gizmo they are peddling. When the stuff arrives at your doorstep, you wonder what momentary lapse of reason made you buy this useless stuff in the first place. That was Ego Depletion at work. You have only finite amount of self control. After a bad day at work, a long commute and having come home to discover that your cat has already tasted your dinner, you find it hard to exercise self restraint. When you have an important presentation or meeting, make sure you are well rested and not hungry when the big moment comes.

Our moral compass wavers when we see others around us being dishonest. Bad news for a country that is low down on the Corruption Perceptions Index. That simply means that the cycle of corruption is harder to break. A culture of dishonesty simply gives many more people the encouragement to be dishonest. Remember how people will justify their transgressions by saying, “Everyone does this.”  On issues of honesty, don’t keep a grey zone. The act is either honest – no matter what the circumstances, or it is dishonest. The book suggests a good option that could work. Just reminding people that they are agreeing to be honest – think of a declaration to stick to an honor code – makes people become honest.The amount of money or the probability of being caught does not seem to deter people from being dishonest. (Note to myself: That explains the reason why we have so many scams in India. See list below)

If you want people around you to be creative – then remember that creative people usually find it easier to justify their actions and spin convincing stories. Their creativity also spurs them to be more dishonest. Creative people are more adept at justifying self-serving actions. To quote his research finding

“Ethical dilemmas often require people to weigh two opposing forces: the desire to maximize self-interest and the desire to maintain a positive view of oneself. Recent research has suggested that individuals tend to resolve this tension through self-serving rationalizations: They behave dishonestly enough to profit from their unethical behavior but honestly enough to maintain a positive self-concept as honest human beings.”

Intelligence didn’t correlate with dishonesty, but creativity did.

Previous immoral acts make it easier to be dishonest. So the best way to remain honest – resist the urge to cross the line the first time. Overall a fascinating topic that is presented very well by Dan Ariely. He has the ability to take the insights of behavioral economics to the lowest common denominator – the lay reader. He is a great storyteller. Don’t miss the story about the locksmith if you pick up the book. And you should. Honest!!

Overall Rating: 4/5 Recommended

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Read my take on Corruption in India and why it happens in the first place

List of scams & scandals in India – yes, there is a whole page dedicated to it on Wikipedia <click here>

Check out Dan Ariely’s column in Wall Street Journal <click here>

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