The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely (New York: Harper Perennial, 2012. 318 pp)

Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. He is the founder and director of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. His work has been featured in many outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and others. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife, Sumi, and their two children, Amit and Neta.

We’ve All Stolen Something

Who among us hasn’t stolen a pen from work? The writing instrument, ball-point gliding against paper, emitting tones of black or blue, has a cost. A marginal cost, but its components pull together toward a monetary value. But, the pen isn’t a dead president printed on a piece of paper. The pen holds usefulness. We write with a pen. So, when given a pen, then tendency is to pocket the pen, to put it in our bag, to slide it into our pocket. This action differs greatly from paper money. If you saw a dollar sitting on the front desk of your employer, you wouldn’t likely pocket it on your way home from 8 hours of hard work. What gives? Why do we steal pins but not money? Dan Ariely thinks he has the answer.

In The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, Ariely outlines his research around social and psychological factors of behavior. The foundation of the book operates around one experiment aiming at diagnosing the factors behind our ability to cheat.

The Rational View of Crime

Historically, society believes cheating to be a rational act. In essence, cheating becomes a calculation: the amount of benefit compared to the likelihood of being caught and the weight of the repercussions. In other words, we all would cheat if we gain one million dollars from the action and we have no possibility of being caught. Likewise, nobody would cheat if the gain is a few bucks and the punishment if life in prison.

Underneath this approach, we see how society operates with laws and punishments to keep us away from our Hobbesian state.

Testing Cheating

Ariely’s test questions these assumptions. Simply put, he and his research team create a math test comprising 20 matrices. The test students have a set amount of time to complete the matrices. In a control test, the students take the test and give it to a teacher to grade. Corresponding to the number of matrices achieved, the students receive a cash reward. These students, on average completed 4 matrices within the timeframe. With this test as a control, Ariely introduces a variety of opportunities to cheat. The results are interesting.

To shift the approach to allow for cheating, Ariely creates the same scenario but instead of letting the teacher grade the test, the student shreds the test and then tells the teacher the score he or she achieved.

Given the classic view, one would assume these students would immediately increase their cheating. If there’s no opportunity to get caught, what is keeping the student from admitting she has answered all the matrices?

Interestingly, everyone cheated a little bit. A couple of matrices beyond the control. This phenomenon Ariely labels the fudge factor. He notes:

“This result suggests that cheating is not driven by concerns about standing out. Rather, it shows that our sense our own morality is connected to the amount of cheating we feel comfortable with. Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals” (22-23).

In other words, the fudge factor represents an interesting social element to who we are, how we work, and what it means for institutions. It means we all steal pens from work. It means we are all prone to questionable actions given the right circumstances.

The Variables of Cheating

Throughout the rest of the book, Ariely shifts his experiment to see what elements make us cheat more and what elements make us cheat less. Interestingly, we cheat more when we are tired. We cheat more when somebody in the “in” group cheats as an example (think your manager cheats so you cheat too). And yet, when somebody outside the “in” group cheats—Ariely had a student wear a rival college sweatshirt and announce immediately that he finished the test—the “in” group becomes more honest.

Additionally, we cheat more when we are tired; creative people cheat more. And fascinatingly, considering the notion of transparency as a cure-all for business ethics, people tend to take more advantage of a scenario when transparency has been communicated. In other words, people are more likely to over-report matrix answers when they do so under the assumption of transparency.

And on the other end, people become more honest when they read the ten commandments or a student honor code before the test. Organizationally, these results have profound meaning. Negatively, it means we all are prone to the fudge factor. Ariely urges education as an approach to keep everyone aware of how these elements can snowball into unethical issues.

“If I were in charge of developing a modern version of the phrase, I would probably pick ‘Remember your fallibility’ or maybe ‘Remember your irrationality.’ Whatever the phrase is, recognizing our shortcomings is a crucial first step on the path to making better decisions, creating better societies, and fixing our institutions” (247).

If we are aware the unethical behavior is not the result of a few bad apples or people rationalizing cheating via the equation mentioned above, it means that anyone can fall into unethical traps. So, remember your fallibility.

Bring Purpose to Your Institution

And even more, businesses have the opportunity to leverage their own core values and statements to remind their people about the purpose behind their work. These little reminders—framing practices as James K.A. Smith would say—keep us focused daily as we do our work.

While we’ll continue to steal those pins, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty offers an interesting view into the social and psychological factors of cheating. If we all fudge the truth a little bit, we should all probably be aware of our underlying motivational factors. Check out this book.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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