*A full executive-style summary of this book is now available at newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com.
There is certainly no shortage of lying, cheating and corruption in our society today. At their worst, these phenomena do substantial damage to our communities and the people in them. Picking on the corporate world for just a moment, consider a few high-profile examples from the last decade: the scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, Haliburton, Kmart, Tyco, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and a host of banks in the financial crisis of 2008.
If you are a particularly pessimistic person, you may think that people are fundamentally self-interested, and will engage in dishonest and corrupt behaviour so long as the potential benefits of this behaviour outweigh the possibility of being caught multiplied by the punishment involved (known as the Simple Model of Rational Crime or SMORC). On the other hand, if you are a particularly optimistic person, you may think that the lying and cheating that we see in our society is largely the result of a few bad apples in the bunch.
Given that the way we attempt to curb cheating and corruption depends largely on which view we think is correct, we would do well if we could come up with a proper understanding of these tendencies, and under what circumstances they are either heightened or diminished. Over the past several years, the behavioral economist Dan Ariely, together with a few colleagues, has attempted to do just this--by way of bringing dishonesty into the science lab. Ariely reveals his findings in his new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves.
In order to get at the truth, Ariely invited subjects into his lab and gave them tasks with monetary rewards, where cheating was a very real and clear possibility. As you can tell from the title of the book, Ariely found that cheating was not confined to a few bad apples, but was in fact very widespread. On the bright side, though, Ariely also found that the vast majority of his subjects did not cheat nearly as much as they could have, but instead confined themselves to just a little bit of cheating.
Given his findings, Ariely concludes that most of us are torn between two conflicting impulses. On the one hand is the desire to get ahead by way of dishonesty, and on the other hand is the desire to nevertheless think of ourselves as genuinely honest and good people. Getting the best of the both worlds can be tricky, but we manage to do so by way of resorting to our trusty capacities of rationalization and self-deception. Of course, different people show different powers of rationalization and self-deception, and also different circumstances can alter the terms of the negotiation significantly for each of us, thus leading to more or less cheating.
For instance, Ariely found that those who are especially creative are particularly good at rationalization and self-deception, and therefore tend to cheat more so than others (in fact, Ariely found that even priming normal subjects with words related to creativity can increase their cheating behaviour). In addition, he also found that several factors influence the amount that people cheat in general. These factors included being reminded of one's morals; playing for tokens representing money, as opposed to money itself; having one's resolve broken down by will-power depletion; wearing counterfeit clothing and merchandise (as opposed to the genuine article); having one's self-confidence artificially inflated; witnessing other people cheating (either from one's own in-groups, or from out-groups); cheating to benefit others etc.
While these findings are interesting in their own right, Ariely insists that they also have practical value, as he uses his findings to chart out suggestions with regards to how we can minimize cheating and corruption in our own lives, as well as in society at large.
Ariely's clever lab experiments yield many interesting findings with regards to dishonesty, and he tells about them in a very easy and relatable way in his book. My only real criticism is that Ariely does not get into the evolutionary story about the conflicting desires that he identifies, and how and why they may have been laid down in our evolutionary past. Though such a story is not absolutely essential here (as the research does stand on its own), it would add substantially to our understanding of the subject (and is interesting in its own right), and would therefore by very worthwhile. For a full and comprehensive summary of the main argument in the book, as well as many of the juicier details and anecdotes to be found therein, visit newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com, and click on article #16.