In “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty,” Ariely applies his experimental approach to how we “lie to everyone — especially ourselves.” The book discusses the powerful ways irrationality affects our lives, and it begins with a critique of those who think dishonesty is a result of a rational cost-benefit calculation. In a series of experiments, Ariely neatly shows that neither the size of the reward nor the probability of getting caught substantially affects the likelihood of dishonest behavior. The cost-benefit framework for understanding cheating just doesn’t pay off.
Ariely sees two conflicting motivations at work in dishonest behavior. On the one hand, we want to view ourselves as honorable, and on the other hand, we want to get as much stuff as possible. We want the benefits of cheating, and we want to see “ourselves as honest, wonderful people.” So we fudge. We fool ourselves and others. Our “cognitive flexibility” cuts us so much slack that we often don’t perceive ourselves as getting away with anything. This flexibility keeps the contradictions between our principles and our behavior beyond the horizon of our consciousness.
“The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty” is full of examples of how we deceive ourselves about cheating. In golf, for instance, to most people it seems less like cheating to favorably reposition a ball with one’s foot than to move it with one’s hand. Tapping the ball with the club is best of all! As a rule, “cheating becomes much simpler when there are more steps between us and the dishonest act.” We are more averse to directly taking some cash off the table but much more likely to behave dishonestly to get a reward that, in the end, has cash value. Psychological distance is key.
Dishonesty isn’t always so bad. The author describes how doctors and nurses lied to him repeatedly when, as a teenager, he was recovering from severe burns that almost killed him. If they had told him the brutal truth, he might not have mustered the strength to go on. They didn’t want him anticipating excruciating pain that he was in any case powerless to avoid. The pain was real, but the altruistic dishonesty of his caregivers eased his suffering.
Ariely notes that “we quickly and easily start believing whatever comes out of our own mouths,” which means that once we take credit for something, we are likely to really believe that we deserve it. When students are induced to cheat on tasks in an experimental situation, they start to believe that their skill level has increased. They certainly realize that they are, say, using an answer key to “solve” a problem. Nonetheless, they begin to inflate their perception of their competence at problem solving. This kills two birds with one stone. They don’t feel guilty for having cheated, and since they’ve forgotten about the cheating, they feel better about their performance.