Review: Looking for an honest man

June 29, 2012

By Martin Langfield
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

It is said that the philosopher Diogenes the Cynic roamed ancient Athens with a lamp in daylight to search for an honest man. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics, uses more modern research techniques for a similar quest. He reports his findings in a new book, “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.”

Diogenes said he found nothing but scoundrels. Ariely is more nuanced: most people will cheat, given half a chance, but only to the point where they can still tell themselves they are honest. The limit is useful, but dishonesty is contagious, and can be fostered by anger, fatigue, self-regard and misguided altruism, among other sometimes unexpected factors the author lists. Even things people wear can encourage it. Yet oddly simple tricks can rein in the urge to lie.

Ariely focuses less on grand-scale cheating than on the small-time ways people fudge the numbers, or massage the truth, to their advantage. He and his academic colleagues conducted behavioral experiments on thousands of subjects that involved the chance to earn small amounts of money for taking a standardized reasoning test under carefully varied conditions. Many of the set-ups gave participants the opportunity to cheat by inflating their self-reported scores.

While the odd “bad apple” participant would misbehave in a big way, walking off with all the available money after grossly misrepresenting his or her test scores, the experimenters found much more cash ended up going cumulatively to people who just fudged things a little, reporting higher scores in the tests than control groups who had no chance to cheat.

The extent of the cheating would vary, depending on whether, for example, an honor pledge was invoked before the tests (cheating was minimal then) or a participant was seen by everyone else to be grossly dishonest without repercussions (cheating was high in those experiments, which Ariely dubbed the “Madoff condition” after convicted Ponzi scheme fraudster Bernard Madoff).

Dishonesty was also fostered if a person who was seen overtly cheating was a member of the test-takers’ own social group, but far less if the overt cheater was an outsider; dishonesty was higher if people were rewarded with tokens instead of real money; and dishonesty even was higher if test-takers wore designer sunglasses they believed to be counterfeit, compared to subjects wearing shades they believed to be authentic, and to subjects not knowing either way (all the sunglasses were in fact identical and authentic). Even the idea of fakeness can have a corrosive effect on behavior.

Ariely finds the most powerful forces affecting how much people cheat are their susceptibility to social influence – which is far greater than most people allow – and their capacity for self-delusion. Most people involved in the collapse of Enron or in slapping investment-grade ratings on dodgy mortgage-backed securities before the financial crisis didn’t think of themselves as dishonest people, he posits.

But a little wishful blindness can go a long way. “This is where our amazing cognitive flexibility comes into play,” he writes. “… As long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvelous human beings.”

A person might cheat in one area of life to take revenge for events in another, to claim a reward for self-denial, to avoid a confrontation, to help out another person or to burnish a reputation (think of corporate bosses or politicians exaggerating their academic credentials and military records). In each case the liar has a story which justifies the act as deserved, necessary, too small to matter or even noble.

What can hold temptation in check? Even atheists will cheat less after swearing on a Bible, and even a drawing of a watching eye will make people behave better in the area it surveys. Ariely concludes that being regularly reminded of moral or ethical codes, feeling watched or supervised, signing or swearing undertakings to be honest and seeing others behave honorably are all conducive to greater honesty – though perhaps too much of all that could have the opposite effect.

People are not all that bad, he writes. Most are fairly honest most of the time. But people are not all that good either.

 

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