Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics*: Dan Ariely’s New Book Tackles the Truth about Dishonesty

Why are lying and cheating so prevalent? Is dishonesty just a part of human nature? What can be done to encourage people to be more truthful?

In a recent interview on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, talked about his new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone—Especially Ourselves, which was published on June 5. Ariely is interested in the psychology behind lying, and he has conducted a number of experiments over the years that were designed to get at why—and how—people lie. His experiments, which to date have involved more than 30,000 subjects, show that although very few people lie a lot, most of us lie “just a little.” Ariely also discovered some very simple ways to encourage people to be much more honest.

Why do we tell only little lies, or cheat only in small ways? “We want to view ourselves as honest, wonderful people and when we cheat … as long as we cheat just a little bit, we can still view ourselves as good people,” Ariely told NPR’s Robert Siegal, in the June 4 interview. “But once we start cheating too much … we can’t view ourselves as good people and therefore we stop.”

One of Ariely’s favorite experiments involved simple arithmetic problems and a paper shredder. “We give people a sheet of paper with 20 simple math problems and we say, ‘You have 5 minutes to solve as many of those as you can, and we’ll give you $1 per question.’ We say, ‘Go!’ People start, they solve as many as they can, at the end of the five minutes, we say, ‘Stop! Please count how many questions you got correctly, and now that you know how many questions you got correctly, go to the back of the room and shred this piece of paper. And once you’ve finished shredding this piece of paper, come to the front of the room and tell me how many questions you got correctly.’”

Ariely explains that the subjects in this experiment typically claimed that they solved six problems, which they were paid for. What he didn’t tell the subjects, however, is that the shredder was modified so that it only shredded the sides of the paper, leaving the main part of the page intact. On average, people solved four problems, but claimed that they had solved six. “We find that lots of people cheat a little bit,” says Ariely, but “very, very few people cheat a lot.”

In his May 26 Wall Street Journal essay, “Why We Lie,” Ariely discusses some of the reasons that people behave in dishonest ways. Conventional wisdom suggests that when faced with a choice to be honest or dishonest, people weigh the costs (such as getting caught) against the benefits (such as gaining something useful or helping another person) and make their choice logically. Ariely’s research shows, however, that this is rarely the case. In fact, he found that level of cheating is generally unaffected by the probability of getting caught.

What factors cause people to cheat more or cheat less? In a variation on the math/paper shredder experiment, Ariely had the administrator of the test take a cell phone call while giving instructions to the participants, engaging in a distracting, unrelated conversation and seeming to ignore the test subject. In this case, subjects cheated, on average, twice as much. “I think this goes back to the law of karma, right?” says Ariely. “If somebody has mistreated you, now you can probably rationalize [your cheating behavior] to a higher degree.” Cheating also seems to be infectious: If another participant was flagrantly cheating, other subjects in the room cheated more.

If “getting caught” is not a disincentive to lie or cheat, then what is? For many of us, a simple reminder about honesty—a reminder of the moral code—can make a big difference. In an experiment at UCLA with 450 subjects, Ariely and his colleagues conducted another variation on the math problem experiment. This time, before the subjects began, they asked half of the participants to recall the Ten Commandments and half to recall ten books they’d read in high school. In his Wall Street Journal essay, Ariely explains the results. “Among the group who recalled the 10 books, we saw the typical widespread but moderate cheating. But in the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments, we observed no cheating whatsoever. We reran the experiment, reminding students of their schools’ honor codes instead of the Ten Commandments, and we got the same result.” Even a simple statement such as “I promise that the information I am providing is true” is often enough to encourage most people to be honest, according to Ariely.

If you have read Dr. Ariely’s book, or if you have other ideas about the psychology of dishonesty, PAR wants to hear from you—leave a comment and join the conversation!

*Nineteenth century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is perhaps better known for his literary career than his political accomplishments. He once quipped, “There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

A Childhood Diagnosis of Mental Disability May Lead to Physical Problems in Adulthood

A recent study suggests that children diagnosed with mental disorders are more susceptible to developing ongoing physical disorders later in life. A diagnosis of depression or anxiety combined with instances of abuse or criminal activity in the home gives children a higher chance of developing diabetes, osteoarthritis, and heart disease in adulthood.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO) Mental Health Surveys program, analyzed data from a cross-sectional survey spanning 10 different countries. The survey sought to prove that a concrete relationship exists between mental disability and physical abuse leading to chronic physical conditions. Previous studies had failed to look at mental disability as a factor, which authors claim was an “important oversight.”

Kate M. Scott, an associate professor in the department of psychological medicine at the University of Otago, organized a team of interviewers to facilitate the survey’s two-part analysis. The first part looked for people who met the criteria of a mental disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV™). The second part evaluated childhood adversities such as “physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, parental death, parental divorce, other parental loss, parental mental disorder, parental substance use, parental criminal behavior, family violence, and family economic adversity.” These two factors were then used to evaluate the onset of physical problems.

In the study, published in the August 2011 Archives of General Psychiatry, authors point out that this was the first time scientists have analyzed data looking at the relationship between early mental illness and physical factors.

“In prior research that has considered the influence of the early psychosocial environment on later physical health, mental disorders have generally been out of the frame of consideration…. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that childhood adversities and early-onset mental disorder have independent, broad-spectrum effects that increase the risk of diverse chronic physical conditions in later life.”

Pre-1990s data shows that physical illnesses such as asthma were the most common disabilities diagnosed in children. However, in a recent article in The Future of Children, published by the Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, authors Janet M. Currie and Robert Kahn found that in 2008-2009, asthma had fallen to sixth on the list. After speech problems, the most common diagnoses were learning disabilities, affecting 23 percent; ADHD, affecting 22 percent; “other mental, emotional or behavioral problems,” affecting 19 percent; and “other developmental problems,” affecting 10 percent.

If the shift in diagnoses of children from physical to mental disorders continues, are children now facing a two-part challenge? Are there preventive measures we can take now to help children avoid physical issues later? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!

Editor’s note: This week, PAR is pleased to welcome guest blogger Grace Gardner. A recent graduate of the University of South Florida with a B.A. in Mass Communication, Grace is working as an editorial assistant this summer in the production department at PAR. 

Historic, Censored “Shell-Shock” Documentary Film Restored and Released for On-line Viewing

Director John Huston’s film Let There Be Light, a documentary about the psychological issues of soldiers returning from World War II, has recently been restored and released by the National Archives and Records Administration. Produced by the U.S. Army in 1945, this controversial film was censored for more than three decades. By the time it was finally given a public screening in 1980, the quality of the then-available print was so poor that it was very difficult to view and understand. In this new restoration, the technical problems have been resolved, and many of us will now see this important piece of history for the first time.

Let There Be Light deals with “shell-shock,” or in today’s terms, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among returning soldiers. Huston, who is best known as the director of such classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Key Largo (1948), and The African Queen (1951), was serving as a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps when he was given the assignment to create the documentary in June 1945. Its working title was The Returning Psychoneurotics. Although by current standards, the psychiatric methods and therapeutic “cures” are dated and perhaps unrealistic, the film captures some historically significant aspects of military psychiatric practice during the 1940s.

Huston later described the project:

I visited a number of Army hospitals during the research phase, and finally settled on Mason General Hospital on Long Island as the best place to make the picture. It was the biggest in the East, and the officers and doctors there were the most sympathetic and willing…. The hospital admitted two groups of 75 patients each week, and the goal was to restore these men physically, mentally and emotionally within six to eight weeks, to the point where they could be returned to civilian life in as good condition—or almost as good—as when they came into the Army…. I decided that the best way to make the film was to follow one group through from the day of their arrival until their discharge. (Source: National Film Preservation Foundation, Film Notes)

Let There Be Light was ground-breaking not only in its use of unscripted interview techniques, but also because of the mix of racial groups represented in the film. Although the U.S. military would remain largely segregated until President Truman’s executive order of 1948, a few Army hospitals had begun integrating in 1943. Huston’s film shows African American and white soldiers being treated side-by-side, an unusually progressive choice at that time.

To view this documentary now, visit the National Film Preservation Foundation and click on the link for Let There Be Light. And let us know what you think—leave a comment here to join the conversation!

What Do You Have to Say About the New DSM?

Want your voice to be heard when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) publishes the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)? The organization is now taking comments on its most recent draft and welcomes opinions until June 15, 2012. Simply register to participate in the public commentary period. This will be the third time the draft has been made available for comment and will be the final opportunity for feedback on the text. A final version of the text will be presented to the Board of Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association later this year in order to meet a May 2013 publication date.

Interested in reading what is new in the DSM-5? APA provides an ongoing list of the proposed updates.

The World Health Organization (WHO) will be releasing the eleventh edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) in 2015. If you are interested in participating in the revision, making comments, or reviewing proposals, visit the WHO site to register. Want more information about how the ICD-11 update will affect you? Visit the ICD-11 fact sheet for more information.