The Honest Truth About Dishonesty - by Dan Ariely
Professor Dan Ariely is my role model in academia – he’s creative, productive, eloquent, humorous and honest. I started searching for his book after playing one of his TED speeches in my class: Are we in control of our decisions?. In this book, he says: “We cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.” It’s quite fitting to see that one of the PNAS papers got retracted due to data fabrication. Here is my summary of Figure 6 in this book:
What increases dishonesty?
- Ability to rationalize
- Conflicts of interest
- One immoral act (“What the hell” effect)
- Being depleted
- Others benefiting from our dishonesty (altruistic cheating)
- Watching others behave dishonestly (especially those others who are “us”)
- Culture that gives examples of dishonesty
What has no effect on dishonesty?
- Amount of money to be gained
- Probability of being caught
What decreases dishonesty?
(especially at the top of forms)
- Moral reminders
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
If it does, society has two clear means for dealing with dishonesty. The first is to increase the probability of being caught (through hiring more police officers and installing more surveillance cameras, for example). The second is to increase the magnitude of punishment for people who get caught (for example, by imposing steeper prison sentences and fines). This, my friends, is the SMORC, with its clear implications for law enforcement, punishment, and dishonesty in general.
He told the retirees to write down what was sold and what they received, and—you guessed it—the thievery stopped.
“We are going to take things from each other if we have a chance … many people need controls around them for them to do the right thing.”
Participants in the shredder condition claimed to have solved an average of six—two more than in the control condition. And this overall increase did not result from a few individuals who claimed to solve a lot more matrices, but from lots of people who cheated by just a little bit.
It turned out that when we looked at the magnitude of cheating, our participants added two questions to their scores on average, regardless of the amount of money they could make per question.
And why was the level of cheating lowest when the payment was greatest? I suspect that when the amount of money that the participants could make per question was $10, it was harder for them to cheat and still feel good about their own sense of integrity
These results suggest that the probability of getting caught doesn’t have a substantial influence on the amount of cheating.
They cheated by about two extra answers (they solved four and reported that they had solved six) regardless of whether they thought that others solved on average four or eight matrices.
Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.
Thanks to this human skill, as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvelous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalization, and it is the basis of what we’ll call the “fudge factor theory.”
As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Morality, like art, means drawing a line somewhere.” The question is: where is the line?
But this little experiment suggests that we human beings are ready and willing to steal something that does not explicitly reference monetary value—that is, something that lacks the face of a dead president.
As it turned out, those who lied for tokens that a few seconds later became money cheated by about twice as much as those who were lying directly for money.
As it turns out, people are more apt to be dishonest in the presence of nonmonetary objects—such as pencils and tokens—than actual money.
the more cashless our society becomes, the more our moral compass slips.
The good news is that once we understand how our dishonesty increases when we are one or more steps removed from money, we can try to clarify and emphasize the links between our actions and the people they can affect.
Among the group who recalled the ten books, we saw the typical widespread but moderate cheating. On the other hand, in the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments, we observed no cheating whatsoever. And that was despite the fact that no one in the group was able to recall all ten.
recall moral standards was enough to improve moral behavior.
On the depressing side, it seems that it is very difficult to alter our behavior so that we become more ethical and that a crash course on morality will not suffice.
On the positive side, it seems that when we are simply reminded of ethical standards, we behave more honorably.
When we estimated the amount of driving that took place over the last year, those who signed the form first appeared to have driven on average 26,100 miles, while those who signed at the end of the form appeared to have driven on average 23,700 miles—a difference of about 2,400 miles.
although we commonly think about signatures as ways to verify information (and of course signatures can be very useful in fulfilling this purpose), signatures at the top of forms could also act as a moral prophylactic.
YOU MAY BE wondering why we asked participants about “the average golfer” rather than about their own behavior on the course. The reason for this was that we expected that, like most people, our golfers would lie if they were asked directly about their own tendency to behave in unethical ways. By asking them about the behavior of others, we expected that they would feel free to tell the truth without feeling that they are admitting to any bad behavior themselves.
although many “other golfers” cheat, the particular participants in our study were relative angels
golfers not only cheat a lot in golf, they also lie about lying.
Perfectly well-meaning people can get tripped up by the quirks of the human mind, make egregious mistakes, and still consider themselves to be good and moral.
Yet, as it turns out, biased incentives can—and do—lead even the most upstanding professionals astray.
But the reality is that conflicts of interest influence our behavior in all kinds of places and, quite frequently, both professionally and personally.
This suggested that the favor from the sponsoring gallery had a deep effect on how people responded to the art. And get this: when participants were asked if they thought that the sponsor’s logo had any effect on their art preferences, the universal answer was “No way, absolutely not.”
These results suggest that once someone (or some organization) does us a favor, we become partial to anything related to the giving party—and that the magnitude of this bias increases as the magnitude of the initial favor (in this case the amount of payment) increases.
Those small gifts can subtly influence physicians to prescribe a drug more often—all because they feel the need to give back.
What did I learn? When I was deciding to exclude the drunk man’s data, I honestly believed I was doing so in the name of science—as if I were heroically fighting to clear the data so that the truth could emerge. It didn’t occur to me that I might be doing it for my own self-interest, but I clearly had another motivation: to find the results I was expecting. More generally, I learned—again—about the importance of establishing rules that can safeguard ourselves from ourselves.
Take contractors, lawyers, and car mechanics, for example. The way these professionals are paid puts them into terrible conflicts of interest because they both make the recommendation and benefit from the service, while the client has no expertise or leverage.
In case you haven’t noticed, on stressful days many of us give in to temptation and choose one of the less healthy alternatives.
Instead, they decided to tax their participants’ ability to think by piling on what psychologists call cognitive load. Simply put, they wanted to find out whether having a lot on one’s mind would leave less cognitive room for resisting temptation and make people more likely to succumb to it.
Baba and Sasha’s experiment showed that when our deliberative reasoning ability is occupied, the impulsive system gains more control over our behavior.
The basic idea behind ego depletion is that resisting temptation takes considerable effort and energy. Think of your willpower as a muscle.
Each of the decisions we make to avoid temptation takes some degree of effort (like lifting a weight once), and we exhaust our willpower by using it over and over (like lifting a weight over and over). This means that after a long day of saying “no” to various and sundry temptations, our capacity for resisting them diminishes—until at some point we surrender and end up with a belly full of cheese danish, Oreos, french fries, or whatever it is that makes us salivate.
Ego depletion also helps explain why our evenings are particularly filled with failed attempts at self-control—after a long day of working hard to be good, we get tired of it all. And as night falls, we are particularly likely to succumb to our desires (think of late-night snacking as the culmination of a day’s worth of resisting temptation).
I think that PhD students (a slightly different sort of prisoner) instinctively understand this mechanism, which is why they often bring doughnuts, muffins, and cookies to their dissertation proposals and defenses. Based on the results of the parole study, it is likely that their judges are more likely to grant them academic parole and let them start their own independent lives.
As it turned out, the more taxing and depleting the task, the more participants cheated.
Generally speaking, if you wear down your willpower, you will have considerably more trouble regulating your desires, and that difficulty can wear down your honesty as well.
grandmothers are ten times more likely to die before a midterm and nineteen times more likely to die before a final exam. Moreover, grandmothers of students who aren’t doing so well in class are at even higher risk—students who are failing are fifty times more likely to lose a grandmother compared with non-failing students.
As a result of their depletion, they suffered a double whammy: they picked the premarked bubble sheet more frequently, and (as we saw in the previous experiment) they also cheated more when cheating was possible. When we looked at these two ways of cheating combined, we found that we paid the depleted participants 197 percent more than those who were not depleted.
Ironically, simple, everyday attempts to keep our impulses under control weaken our supply of self-control, thus making us more susceptible to temptation.
when faced with temptation, a rational person should sometimes succumb. Why? Because by doing so, the rational person can keep him- or herself from becoming too depleted, remaining strong for whatever temptations the future may bring.
commercial forces around us (bars, online shopping, Facebook, YouTube, online computer games, and so on) thrive on both temptation and depletion, which is why they are so successful.
once we realize that it is very hard to turn away when we face temptation, we can recognize that a better strategy is to walk away from the draw of desire before we are close enough to be snagged by it. Accepting this advice might not be easy, but the reality is that it is much easier to avoid temptation altogether rather than to overcome it when it sits lingering on the kitchen counter.
Why Wearing Fakes Makes Us Cheat More
I was continuously aware of the brand on the bag. I was wearing Prada! And it made me feel different; I stood a little straighter and walked with a bit more swagger. I wondered what would happen if I wore Ferrari underwear.
Instead, we observe ourselves in the same way we observe and judge the actions of other people—inferring who we are and what we like from our actions.
If our participants felt that wearing fakes would broadcast (even to themselves) a less honorable self-image, we wondered whether they might start thinking of themselves as somewhat less honest. And with this tainted self-concept in mind, would they be more likely to continue down the road of dishonesty?
wearing a genuine product does not increase our honesty (or at least not by much). But once we knowingly put on a counterfeit product, moral constraints loosen to some degree, making it easier for us to take further steps down the path of dishonesty.
And once they passed that point, they would start thinking, “What the hell, as long as I’m a cheater, I might as well get the most out of it.” And from then on, they would cheat much more frequently—or even every chance they got.
But the wearers of the fake sunglasses showed a much greater tendency to abandon their moral constraints and cheat at full throttle.
Once we start violating our own standards (say, with cheating on diets or for monetary incentives), we are much more likely to abandon further attempts to control our behavior—and from that point on there is a good chance that we will succumb to the temptation to further misbehave.
counterfeit products not only tend to make us more dishonest; they cause us to view others as less than honest as well.
Ultimately, this means that we all pay a price for counterfeits in terms of moral currency; “faking it” changes our behavior, our self-image, and the way we view others around us.
Self-deception is a useful strategy for believing the stories we tell, and if we are successful, it becomes less likely that we will flinch and accidentally signal that we’re anything other than what we pretend to be.
we succeed in fooling ourselves as we try to fool others.
But as I continued with the quiz, I also noticed that as I was checking the answer to the question I just finished solving, my eyes strayed just a bit to the next answer.
In honor of our natural tendency to convince ourselves that we knew the right answers all along, I call my research center at Duke University “The Center for Advanced Hindsight.”
The participants who received a certificate predicted that they would correctly answer more questions on the second test. It looks as though having a reminder of a “job well done” makes it easier for us to think that our achievements are all our own, regardless of how well the job was actually done.
It seems, then, that when we are made blatantly aware of the ways we cheat, we become far less able to take unwarranted credit for our performance.
Like our friend the crab, we can use self-deception to boost our confidence when we might not otherwise feel bold.
Still, in hindsight, I was very glad they had lied to me. If they had told me the truth about what to expect, I would have spent the weeks before the extraction anticipating the procedure in misery, dread, and stress—which in turn might have compromised my much-needed immune system.
We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings.
We want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We’re storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better.
This experience taught me that sometimes (perhaps often) we don’t make choices based on our explicit preferences. Instead, we have a gut feeling about what we want, and we go through a process of mental gymnastics, applying all kinds of justifications to manipulate the criteria. That way, we can get what we really want, but at the same time keep up the appearance—to ourselves and to others—that we are acting in accordance with our rational and well-reasoned preferences.
In general, there are two types of matter that fill our brains: gray and white. Gray matter is just another name for the collections of neurons that make up the bulk of our brains, the stuff that powers our thinking. White matter is the wiring that connects those brain cells.
But when the trials were more ambiguous and it was harder to tell if there were more dots to the right or the left of the diagonal, creativity kicked into action—along with more cheating. The more creative the individuals, the better they were at explaining to themselves why there were more dots to the right of the diagonal (the side with the higher reward).
The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.
individuals who were more creative also had higher levels of dishonesty. Intelligence, however, wasn’t correlated to any degree with dishonesty.
once something or someone irritates us, it becomes easier for us to justify our immoral behavior.
We have an incredible ability to distance ourselves in all kinds of ways from the knowledge that we are breaking the rules, especially when our actions are a few steps removed from causing direct harm to someone else.
Designers and copy-writers were at the top of the moral flexibility scale, and the accountants ranked at the bottom. It seems that when “creativity” is in our job description, we are more likely to say “Go for it” when it comes to dishonest behavior.
the act of inviting our friends to join in can help us justify our own questionable behavior. After all, if our friends cross the ethical line with us, won’t that make our action seem more socially acceptable in our own eyes?
When the cheater is part of our social group, we identify with that person and, as a consequence, feel that cheating is more socially acceptable. But when the person cheating is an outsider, it is harder to justify our misbehavior, and we become more ethical out of a desire to distance ourselves from that immoral person and from that other (much less moral) out-group.
when participants learned that both they and someone else would benefit from their dishonesty if they exaggerated their scores more, they ended up engaging in even higher levels of cheating
being closely supervised eliminated cheating altogether.
two forces at play: altruistic tendencies get people to cheat more when their team members can benefit from their dishonesty, but direct supervision can reduce dishonesty and even eliminate it altogether.
So whereas altruism can increase cheating and direct supervision can decrease it, altruistic cheating overpowers the supervisory effect when people are put together in a setting where they have a chance to socialize and be observed.
as dentists become more comfortable with their patients, they also more frequently recommend procedures that are in their own financial interest. And long-term patients, for their part, are more likely to accept the dentist’s advice based on the trust that their relationship has engendered.
As it turns out, altruism is indeed a strong motivator for cheating. When cheating was carried out for purely altruistic reasons and the cheaters themselves did not gain anything from their act, overclaiming increased to an even larger degree.
In fact, the amount of cheating seems to be equal in every country—at least in those we’ve tested so far.
“Memento mori,” which means “Remember your mortality.”
However, those in the guilty condition were far more disposed to self-administering higher levels of shocks.
purification through the pain of self-flagellation might tap into a basic way we deal with feelings of guilt. Perhaps recognizing our mistakes, admitting them, and adding some form of physical punishment is a good recipe for asking forgiveness and opening a new page.
The first part of her solution was to put a lock on the freezer. Then the sister told her maid that she suspected that some of the people who were working at the house from time to time had been taking some meat from the freezer, so she wanted only the two of them to have keys. She also gave her maid a small financial promotion for the added responsibility. With the new role, the new rules, and the added control, the stealing ceased.
I find writing about academic research to be fulfilling and stimulating, but the pleasure that I get day in and day out comes from working jointly with amazing researchers/friends—coming up with ideas, designing experiments, finding out what works and doesn’t work, and figuring out what the results mean.
Finally, where would I be without my lovely wife, Sumi? It takes a very special person to be willing to share a life with me, and my hectic life and workaholism don’t make it any easier. Sumi, I will move the boxes to the attic when I get home tonight. Actually, I will probably be late, so I will do it tomorrow. Well, you know what? I will definitely do it this weekend. I promise.