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.”

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