The Honest Truth about Dishonesty [A book review]

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves

By: Dan Ariely

Published June 5th 2012 by Harper

The New York Times bestselling author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality returns with thought-provoking work to challenge our preconceptions about dishonesty and urge us to take an honest look at ourselves.

Does the chance of getting caught affect how likely we are to cheat?
How do companies pave the way for dishonesty?
Does collaboration make us more honest or less so?
Does religion improve our honesty?
Most of us think of ourselves as honest, but, in fact, we all cheat. From Washington to Wall Street, the classroom to the workplace, unethical behavior is everywhere. None of us is immune, whether it’s the white lie to head off trouble or padding our expense reports. In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, award-winning, bestselling author Dan Ariely turns his unique insight and innovative research to the question of dishonesty.

Generally, we assume that cheating, like most other decisions, is based on a rational cost-benefit analysis. But Ariely argues, and then demonstrates, that it’s actually the irrational forces that we don’t take into account that often determine whether we behave ethically or not. For every Enron or political bribe, there are countless puffed résumÉs, hidden commissions, and knockoff purses. In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Ariely shows why some things are easier to lie about; how getting caught matters less than we think; and how business practices pave the way for unethical behavior, both intentionally and unintentionally. Ariely explores how unethical behavior works in the personal, professional, and political worlds, and how it affects all of us, even as we think of ourselves as having high moral standards.

But all is not lost. Ariely also identifies what keeps us honest, pointing the way for achieving higher ethics in our everyday lives. With compelling personal and academic findings, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty will change the way we see ourselves, our actions, and others.

Dan Ariely (so far) never ceases to impress me in his quest to unlock the secret of human irrationality. In his third book, he puts dishonesty on the centre stage. I read it, I am hooked, I love it.

First, I admire his passion and ability to narrate researches using layman language in a way that makes readers feel as if they’re involved in the journey. It makes me able to appreciate research more – you see something, no matter how trivial it is (correction: often trivial things, when examined, reveal hidden insights the most), that intrigues your interest, design the research creatively and voila you learn something new.

Second, related to the content of the book. Through experiments he and his colleagues conducted, he takes readers to question what generally people assume to be the cause of dishonesty and what can curb it.

Assumption A:

Personality. People cheat because they are (pathologically) dishonest people to begin with.

What research shows:

Nice people can cheat given some circumstances.

Assumption B:

Simple rational model of crime. What causes nice people to cheat is the benefit of cheating outweighing the cost. The bigger the benefit is (e.g. the amount of money) and the more unlikely for them to be caught, the more they cheat.

What research shows:

The amount of money and probability of being caught are not significant forces that shape cheating or dishonesty. Interestingly if the benefit reaped from cheating is too big, people tend not to cheat. From this point, Dan Ariely shows why simple model of crime is not adequate to explain dishonesty – it neglects the point that people want to see themselves having a good moral and their ‘ability’ to cheat depends on how they can reconcile or rationalise cheating with this desired view of self.

Then Dan Ariely opens our eyes on irrational forces which unconsciously drive people to cheat and rationalise their behaviour. Surprisingly simple everyday circumstances ‘tempt’ people to cheat, even as trivial as sporting counterfeit products. Even more surprising, sometimes, good values our society praise, such as altruism, creativity, can also drive people to cheat.

Based on these learnings, Dan Ariely also gives suggestions on ways to curb dishonesty. Some of the suggestions, he already tested it. However there are complex situations where he admits he does not have the silver bullets that can solve everything.

And that brings me to the third reason why I like this book so much: the author’s honesty that stays true to the book’s title “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty. Besides, honesty is a very important virtue in science or anything that is related to knowledge business. Knowledge is power. When that knowledge reflects the truth (less biased), it is useful – to help a lot to solve problems, better outcomes in respective field. Hence being objective is the gold standard any scientist or people who deal with knowledge should aspire to achieve.

In the last chapter, the author reveals this book’s limitation. He admits other factor such as cultural influences might play a big role on dishonesty and he realises readers might expect it to be given a big portion in this book. Apparently some experiments have been replicated in other countries yet it yields similar results.

This ‘honesty’ reflects on the conclusion takes account of the limitation of tests he used:

“Our matrix test exists outside any cultural context. That is, it’s not an engrained part of any social or cultural environment. Therefore, it tests the basic human capacity to be morally flexible and reframe situations and actions in ways that reflect positively on ourselves. Our daily activities, on the other hand, are entwined in a complex cultural context.”

On explanation on why there is no chapter about infidelity in this book:

“With all of this complexity, nuance, and social importance, you might wonder why there isn’t a chapter in this book about infidelity and why this rather fascinating topic is relegated to one small section. The problem is data. I generally like to stick to conclusions I can draw from experiments and data. Conducting experiments on infidelity would be nearly impossible, and the data by their very nature are difficult to estimate. This means that for now we are left to speculate – and only speculate – about infidelity.”

Back to the silver bullets problem, one might ask, “if there is no silver bullet, what’s the use of knowing all of these?” I think this book has served its purpose – widen our perspectives on dishonesty.

“… dishonesty is a prime example of our irrational tendencies. It’s pervasive; we don’t instinctively understand how it works its magic on us; and most important, we don’t see it ourselves.

The good news in all of this is that we are not helpless in the face of our human foibles (dishonesty included). Once we better understand what really causes our less-than-optimal behavior, we can’t start to discover ways to control our behavior and improve our outcomes.”

By understanding irrational forces that can drive us to cheat, it is now our task to start finding ways to control our behaviour. First, start from the man/woman in the mirror. Then, think critically whether as a citizen when reviewing policies or coming up with idea to solve social problems (e.g. how to prevent corruption, how to tackle institutionalised blackmail in law enforcement) or as an aspiring ‘Of The People, By The People, For The People’ policy makers when designing policies (e.g. how to stay loyal to the people instead of drifting to corruption and any practice that puts self-interest/elite’s interest above all).

Watch Dan Ariely’s eye-opening TED talk on the hidden reasons we think it’s OK to cheat or steal (sometimes).

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