Dishonesty is not rational in the sense that you cannot control dishonesty by increasing the chances of getting caught or its penalties. Those remedies, which are the basis for much of our regulatory and enforcement policy do not control dishonesty. In the real world, according to this book, we all cheat a little, but not so much that it causes us to comprise our self-image or integrity. That is the principle finding of Dan Ariely's new book The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty. Overall this book represents a continuation of Ariely's other books. The book is an engaging, story oriented, insightful book that clearly illustrates how to evaluate dishonesty and all of its different permutations.
This book is good, but frankly it is not as good as Ariely's prior books. Predictably Irrational broke new ground in terms of the understanding behavioral economics. This book builds on that understanding. It repeats some of the same points and remains focused on the issue of dishonesty in all its forms. Fans of Ariely's books will enjoy this extension of his published body of knowledge. For people who are new to Ariely and behavioral economics I would strongly recommend starting with Predictably Irrational.
Ariely shares the studies, their design and evidence to support the conclusions around dishonesty. This makes the ideas and conclusions convincing and clear, as you understand their source.
Ariely tells stories that help build the context around the studies and their findings. This not only makes for an entertaining and engaging read, but also an informative one.
The book is comprehensive looking at the issues of dishonest in different situations, contexts and settings.
The book repeats its central finding time after time and situation after situation. This gives you the indicator that the subject matter would be better represented as an article rather than trying to stretch it out to a book.
Some of the arguments and information presented in the book have been discussed in other books, including Ariely's prior books. Chapter 4 on why we blow it when we are tired is material that is also covered in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow. This is not surprising given the plethora of behavioral books, but it detracts from this book.
The book follows the same format of Ariely's other books. While this presents a clear and compelling book, it also leads to the impression that if you have read one Ariely book you have pretty much read every Ariely book.
Overall this book is endorsed but not strongly recommended for the challenges mentioned above. Fans or Ariely's book, like me, will enjoy reading it, but this is not the place to start for people new to Ariely or the subject of behavioral economics.
Finding a unique narrative angle when a book by the de-facto creator of the behavioral psychology field - Thinking, Fast and Slow is recently published is not an easy task. However, Ariely picks up from where he left off in his previous works - Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions and The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic. This time the focus is on understanding behaviors related to (dis)honesty. While the framing that honesty is mostly a choice between benefit from cheating ("economic motivation") and psychological motivation may seem too simplistic in its assumption, Ariely provides interesting assertions and arguments to explore what kinds of triggers tend to increase or decrease honesty and what triggers tend to be neutral.
Ariely sets the stage by pointing out the limitations of the traditional Simple Model of Rational Crime that hinges on cost/benefit analyses and re-introducing the "fudge factor" from his earlier works. Using a mix of previously discussed experiments and a few new ones, he visits the role of honor codes, position of signatures, role of "tokens" to lead to an important insight central to this book that has potential implications for policy makers. This theme is further illustrated using golf as the context. Furthermore, using familiar examples from healthcare, financial services, he also revisits cognitive dissonance and the impact of biased incentives. This section in particular is not particularly new and readers may be better served on the discussion of cognitive loads and temptations in a Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.
Discussions on the "slippery slope" - longer term impact of one transgression, the art of self-deception and the "storytelling" abilities used to rationalize make for some interesting reading. The cognitive reflective tests used to illustrate these points are mostly cliched, though (derivatives of lilies in a pond doubling, etc)
The last few chapters discussing the role of environment in cheating and what point does cheating in a particular context become "socially accepted" - are probably the standouts. He uses these chapters to lead to an excellent summary of the various behavioral levers in three categories (increase/decrease/neutral) on dishonesty and a sane take on the role of religion.
The difficulty of generalizing studies with small sample sizes in controlled environment is always a major challenge in this field - and the role of cultural differences. Ariely addresses this issue atleast in the relatively narrow domain of dishonesty. While someone familiar with the literature/pop books in this field is unlikely to find most of the findings dramatic - the incremental insights using some new and well-cited examples from previous books does help a reader develop a healthy skepticism on our own motivations that drive our actions.
Cheating is widespread, if we are to believe the media reports that bombard us daily. For example, perpetrators of multi-billion dollar Ponzi schemes leave stunned retirees and working people destitute; crooked accountants cook the books for their corporate employers; and unethical teachers and principles inflate students' test scores. Professor of behavioral economics Dan Ariely weighs in on this topic in "The Honest Truth about Dishonesty." As he did in his previous works, Ariely designs a series of experiments to test various hypotheses. His goal is to learn more about why and under what conditions average men and women are likely to cheat. He also discusses the type of measures that could be implemented to cut down on deceitful behavior.
As it turns out, most men and women do not do a cost-benefit analysis and decide, "Since I can commit fraud and get away with it, I'll do whatever I want--embezzle, fudge figures, plagiarize, take things that aren't mine, etc." Those of us who have a conscience and want to feel good about ourselves will probably hesitate before committing serious transgressions. Dishonesty is complex and may be connected to such factors as our level of fatigue; our perception of who is watching us; whether we are alone or part of a group; how connected we feel to our deeds; and even how creative we are.
"The Honest Truth" is a relatively jargon-free, lighthearted, and humorous look at a serious subject. The good news is that we are not all hard-wired to do the wrong thing. However, since "most of us need little reminders to keep ourselves on the right path," it does not hurt to make changes (such as regulations to reduce conflicts of interest) that might reduce the temptation to rationalize our misbehavior. Ariely's conclusions are not all groundbreaking or even particularly surprising. However, they do provide food for thought and could provoke an enlightening discussion about ethics and human psychology. Comment | Permalink
If we're honest with ourselves, we know we're not honest with ourselves, at least not always. Post-Enlightenment rationalism has a myth of humans as instruments of reason, and sees unreason as a failure of human nature. But behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who has studied the limits of human rationality for years, turns his attention to what those limits say about humans' ability to deceive. And his results are fascinating.
Classical economics contends that most people weigh the rewards of breaking the rules against the risk of getting caught. Ariely demonstrates how that vision, called the Simple Model of Rational Crime (SMORC), withers under scrutiny. Even as a thought experiment, it doesn't make sense, or nobody would carry their laptops and iPods in public. But Ariely isn't content with thought experiments, when he could apply very real science.
Behavioral economics apparently combines the most ambitious aspects of developmental psychology with business administration. As such, Ariely buttresses his assertions with bold new research. He demonstrates, through clinically controlled experiments, the manners in which honesty waxes and wanes. And he shows the manner in which diligent leaders can encourage greater honesty without resorting to irrational moralism.
Start with two seemingly contradictory facts. First, if we remove consequences, nearly everyone cheats at least a little bit. Second, almost nobody cheats as much as they could. Even if we kick the doors wide open and send all the guards home, few people would plunder the treasury. We can perform bizarre mental gymnastics to rationalize away small transgressions, but people will do what it takes to think of themselves as essentially good.
Unfortunately, we often cannot see the subtle ways in which daily life undermines our honesty. We miss the conflicts of interest that plague virtually all of us--if I can recommend two choices of action for you, and one will make me a profit, what will stop me from putting your needs ahead of mine? And, strangely enough, common human altruism can justify dishonesty. If I can tell a lie that earns you a reward, my likelihood of dishonesty increases.
But it's not enough that dishonesty just happens; it also spreads virally. When we see people who essentially resemble us get away with dishonesty, we are more likely to cheat ourselves. Anyone who remembers the business ethics failures of 2002 and 2008 recognizes this. The reassuring corollary of this, however, proves that, if we see others resist dishonesty, our likelihood of virtuous behavior increases. We seek role models, even as adults.
Importantly, the most common suggestions for suppressing dishonesty don't work. While Ariely proves that supervision discourages cheating, regulation only works if regulators remain omnipresent yet emotionally distant, which is unfeasible. And harsh punishments only work if people perform cost-benefit analysis before cheating, which Ariely shows we do not. Thus both the traditional liberal and conservative solutions prove founded on empty air.
Ariely's most notable solution to dishonesty is also his simplest: remind people that they have a moral code. If people signed contracts, tax returns, and other documents at the top rather than the bottom, people would fudge less. If we ask people to contemplate their ethical foundations, they act appropriately. Even self-avowed atheists cheat less after swearing on a Bible. These elegant solutions arise not from external scolding, but innate declarations of character.
Rituals of purification also seem to make a difference. Research subjects cheated less right after Catholic confession, the rites of Ramadan and Yom Kippur, and other sacred "reset buttons." Of course, today's plural society could not compel us to participate in religious rites; but Ariely speculates on the possibility of creating secular equivalents. Considering how many of us have something to confess, I heartily endorse this plan.
I wish Ariely addressed how much our flexible honesty is innate, and how much is learned. In a late chapter, he describes performing his honesty experiments in multiple nations, finding that people demonstrate similar levels of honesty across borders. But since all societies rely on standards of trust, a dishonest society seems very unlikely. Perhaps Ariely could only test inherent honesty using children raised by wolves or something.
Ariely demonstrates that, if we clear away the ideological rubbish, the systems currently in place to encourage honesty have not worked. If we claim to be rational people, we will stop clinging to our Enlightenment myths, and recognize the deeper truth: humans are complex and inconsistent, and deserve the respect that comes with addressing our issues with nuance. We can become honest. Here's hoping.
All of Dan Ariely's books are intelligent and entertaining.
Dan knows how to explain why scientific findings will help you understand humanity.
Collaboration often leads to more cheating without any increase in productivity.
Being exposed to lies and deceit by people that we can identify with influences us to act the same.
The act of wearing or carrying counterfeit goods makes us more liable to cheat.
Creativity enables us to come up with strategies for breaking rules, and rationalizations that make us feel fine afterwards.
The list goes on and Dan has plenty of science to back up each insight.
My favorite sections of the book were those that focused on cultural differences (Chapter 10) (as far too many studies are done with young, white, privileged college students in the USA) and why doctors often become less trustworthy as we get to know them and build a relationship with them (Chapter 3). I also think his personal stories are highlights of the book. He is simply killer at moving from narrator straight into the science.
A few downsides:
- if you've read one Ariely book, you will find a decent amount of overlap in this one
- you will get tired of the same experimental methodology used in a large number of studies throughout the book (his beloved matrix task)
- expect to be skeptical of whether some of these studies are relevant to decisions about honesty, deception, and cheating in real-world situations
An easy, interesting read by a fantastic writer.
on October 25, 2015
This is a long review. I believe it is justified because, based on my reading of the nearly 300 Amazon reviews, a few critical reviewers have hinted at the issues I raise below but without getting to the fundamental methodological and epistemological issues that plague the type of experimental approach employed by Dan Ariely.
Ariely’s “The Honest Truth about Dishonesty” is engagingly written, interesting, informative, entertaining but ultimately tremendously frustrating. Ariely attempts to present a systematic demonstration of how common cheating is and what some of the situational factors are which increase or decrease its prevalence. His points are interesting but largely mundane. In sharp contrast to his experimental methods and findings, Ariely’s anecdotes (e.g., his Eurorail ticket escapade) and his observational studies (e.g., Coke in the refrigerator, generous snack machine) are more interesting, more substantive and more thought-provoking and nuanced.
Unfortunately, there are major systemic flaws in the experimental methods Ariely uses to make his rather non-controversial main point: Some people cheat some of the time.
My fundamental frustration is that, like many experiments in behavioral economics and psychology, the meanings of the results of the experiments are open to multiple interpretations but Ariely emphasizes the ones that support his narrative. He continually implicitly attributes motives and thought processes to his subjects. We never hear from the subjects as to their interpretation of the situations and their explanations as to why they decided to cheat or not to cheat. This is a very fundamental methodological and epistemological problem with this kind of experiment. (Another reviewer pointed to Sissela Bok’s book Lying and in particular Chapter 13 on deception in social science research. Here I am focused not so much on the morality of deception, but the limits such deception places on our ability to understand the phenomena being examined)
Second, Ariely’s descriptions of his experiments are grossly inadequate. For example, he does not report the actual numbers of individuals in the myriad of experiments who did not cheat and the degree to which they actually cheated. He reports the averages of the groups exposed to a particular experimental condition. As far as I am concerned, this is highly problematic to the point of dishonesty. What makes it worse is that he does not report all the referenced experiments in the footnotes or the bibliography thereby making it very difficult to find the actual numbers for the experiments. I kept looking for a simple number – the percentage of people who actually cheated. He does not report this number and it is infuriating because you are left to conclude that everybody cheats in the experiments to some degree and this is simply and dramatically untrue. (The write up of at least some of the experiments in journal articles is also sloppy.) In trying to find Ariely-related experiments where researchers actually talked to people as people, I found a paper by one of his major collaborators, Prof. Francesca Gino, titled “Dishonest Deed, Clear Conscience”. The title suggests that some debriefing took place. Actually there was no debriefing of subjects but it did report an experiment where the researchers matched individuals with their answer sheets so that they could determine who cheated and by how much and, more importantly, who did not. It turns out that when simply given the opportunity and an incentive to cheat 43% of subjects DID NOT CHEAT. When shown an honor code, 68% DID NOT CHEAT. When asked to read and sign an honor code, only one subject out of 22 cheated, i.e., 95% DID NOT CHEAT! In my opinion, these numbers put Ariely’s results in a completely different light and require him to discuss in more detail what it is that make some people cheat and others not cheat. This is at the root of my frustration with the experimental methodology he uses.
Third, there is the obvious philosophical and ethical question raised by Bok as to why one would trust somebody who continuously uses deception and lies to generate “truth”. Ariely is well aware of this conundrum and makes a joke of it in his closing comment in Chapter 7. However, acknowledging the conundrum does not resolve the conundrum. The issue of deception in social science research is widely recognized but continues and is now probably more pervasive than ever. Ariely should consider alternative more honest means of exploring honesty and dishonesty. In short, why should we trust Ariely?
In sum, Ariely’s book fails to live up to its title. Even on its own narrow terms, it hardly amounts to the truth about dishonesty and he certainly does not show that “we lie to everyone, especially ourselves”. In fact, I would argue that Ariely, at a number of levels, is fundamentally dishonest in his representation of how widespread dishonesty is.
I'll be honest. I didn't want to read this book. Reading about dishonesty seemed like a bit of a downer, like reading about bad manners--actually, that could be entertaining--or bad hygiene, or adultery, gluttony...you know, the less attractive aspects of human nature.
Knowing of Dan Ariely's reputation as a writer-researcher, and the success of his last book Predictably Irrational, I felt this book about dishonesty is one I SHOULD read. Also read it in hopes that it might explain how a bunch of finance folks could rationalize selling tainted financial products knowing it could, and probably would, bring the world financial system down causing untold misery for billions of folks. That seemed an important dynamic to understand going forward.
This book explained that, along with many less important, but fairly interesting dishonest behaviors. It also suggested simple and inexpensive things organizations could do to nourish honesty and integrity.
The book is full of human interest stories, and Ariely's narrative is readable and entertaining. Ariely and his team must have had great fun creating simple experiments to test honesty-dishonesty factors. That would be a fun job. Imagine getting paid for having that much fun; it almost seems, well, dishonest. Just kidding.
The thesis of this book--great for Ariely to connect the dots for us--is that for most of us we are governed by two conflicting motivations: one is to see ourselves as basically honest and honorable (called ego motivation) and the second is to get as much $$$ or benefit as possible. Ariely says we have a "cognitive flexibility" which allows us to juggle these--if we only cheat a little, we can still see ourselves as basically honest. He quotes Oscar Wilde: "Morality, like art, means drawing a line somewhere." I don't know about you, but it's a daily challenge to draw that line. Like when my local grocery store change thingy in the self-serve line malfunctioned and started spitting out $20 bills in change--it just wouldn't stop! I felt like I was in Las Vegas and all the fruit on the slot machine had just lined up or something. Maybe this was God answering my prayers, and it wouldn't be dishonest to just take the $$$? Yes, I forced myself to call the store employee in charge. She told me to take what was due me (only one $20). She seemed surprised that I just took one $20, and didn't just enjoy the generosity of the malfunctioning machine.
There's a fudge factor, Ariely says, that affects our behavior. Ariely did an experiment once in which he put six cokes in dorm refrigerators at MIT and also plates with six $1 bills in the frig. What do you think disappeared first? You guessed it--the cokes were gone within 72 hours, but the dollars remained untouched. A student could have taken a dollar and gone to the local soda machine, Ariely said, but didn't. Taking $$$ seems more "sinful", than taking a coke. Which explains, in part, one of the dynamics of the financial derivatives debacle which tanked our economy for the past 4 years--the farther away it seems like real $$$ is being looted, the easier it is to go along with dishonest practices. It's only a derivative which will explode and poison the whole financial blood of the world. But hey, the federal government--rest of the taxpayers--have insured the system so who are we really hurting? It's not really $$$. Besides, everyone else is selling them. And they benefit our company's bottom line--cheating that benefits our colleagues, Ariely discovered, produces more cheating.
In every chapter there were fascinating insights and experiments relating to cheating. For example, I always assumed expert witnesses were fairly objective--Ariely found from personal experience that when someone is paying you and complimenting you, it's much too easy to agree with their viewpoint. I'll never look at expert witnesses the same way again.
Little things keep people more honest this book tells us--like being asked to remember the Ten Commandments before taking an exam, or having a picture of a pair of eyes watching. Little things may increase dishonesty--like wearing fake knockoffs of designer garb.
Ariely brought up the example of people dancing bizarrely in Europe 600 years ago--some dying of exhaustion before they finished--the condition was called St. Vitus dance. Sometimes we see the same behavior at rock concerts, sports games--experts say it's a kind of social contagion. Perhaps it was the dynamic which caused the witch trials in Salem. Is this influenced in part by mirror neurons, I wonder. Watch out for social contagion's influence on honesty as cheating has a slow "socially corrosive" effect, claims Ariely. Our economy is based on trust--when trust is gone, and when most everyone cheats as perhaps is happening in Greece--it can taint and bring down the whole system.
Can't imagine a more interesting and readable book written on the topic which is supported by sound research and narrated by a smart and witty narrator. Ariely also has a Q & A column in the Wall Street Journal, does ARMING THE DONKEYS podcasts in which he talks with other experts on behavioral economics--you can get them on itunes. And his website seems to have a lot of self-produced videos on behavioral economics and decision-making.
I'm glad I read this book--it was enlightening and entertaining. Honest.
Dan Ariely entertains while teaching. That's not such a bad thing. But I like more substance and less fluff. Cotton candy tastes good, but meat and potatoes makes a better meal.
In his book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, Dan Ariely describes his research and tells stories (some about himself, and some about others) focusing on honesty. While entertaining enough, there is little to chew on here. Dan Ariely tries to connect his research to bigger themes like the fraud at Enron, the staggering thefts of Bernie Madoff, and the across-the-board dishonesty shown in the financial meltdown of 2008.
But the connection seems fragile. Dan Ariely's research gets nowhere near the mindset and motives of corporate pirates. He focuses instead on the trivial--things like stealing cans of Coke from dorm refrigerators, wearing fake "high-fashion" sunglasses, and cheating when working with matrices in a contrived experimental study. Not the same at all.
Because of that, I had a hard time getting through the book. The first third I read fairly rigorously, the second third I read rather quickly, and the last third I skimmed. I don't think I missed much. As another reviewer said, this book would have been better as an article rather than a book.
Much better on a similar topic was the book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust. The author of that book, John Coates, does not have the academic credentials of Dan Ariely. Nor does he have the comedic bent. But where Dan Ariely serves up cotton candy, John Coates serves up meat and potatoes. Although The Hour Between Dog and Wolf has its faults (including a title that makes little sense), it's a much, much better book than this one.
One final note about a delicious irony: One of the blurbs on the back of The Honest Truth about Dishonesty reads as follows:
In this endlessly fascinating book, Dan Ariely proves that dishonesty is everywhere: we are all bad apples. It's an uncomfortable message, but the implications are huge--and nobody understands this better than Ariely. If you care about the truth, read this book.
--Jonah Lehrer, Author of How We Decide and Imagine
Why is that deliciously ironic? Because Jonah Lehrer is now disgraced and his book Imagine pulled by its publisher, after Lehrer admitted to making up quotes in his book. Yes, indeed, dishonesty is everywhere. But this book--The Honest Truth about Dishonesty--will do little, if anything, to help those who care about the truth. It's full of fluff, and lacking in substance.
First, the book dabbles in the controlled lab experiment world excessively. This was a disappointment because Mr. Ariely could have made more convincing arguments by analyzing real world behavior similar to Messrs. Levitt's and Dubner's Freakonomics.
Given the slim material on real world observations, we would expect to see a high correlation between lab experiment results cited and real world outcomes. After all, what's the point of lab experiments if the results are largely confined to the lab setting? Unfortunately, even in this area, the book fails to establish a strong connection.
For starters, the experiment subjects are predominantly from a pool of college student population who are hardly representatives of society at large. According to a 2008 research study published in the NY Times and conducted by sociologists at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, college increases risk factor for bad behavior. "When male students enrolled in four-year universities, levels of drinking, property theft and unstructured socializing with friends increased. The reason appears to be that kids who don't go to college simply have to grow up more quickly." None of this is reason enough to invalidate the experiment results, but if college student behavior is the primary source of data used to extrapolate societal behavior, then surely a more diverse pool of participants would make a stronger case for Mr. Ariely's assertions.
A set of Mr. Ariely's experiments show wearing fake clothing or accessories increases dishonesty. What are the ramifications of this tendency outside of the university lab? For one thing, stiff enforcement of regulations can temper dishonesty at all levels, e.g. in Singapore. But participants in these experiments had no disincentives such as penalties of any kind to deter cheating. Therefore, these controlled experiments were not fully representative of real world dynamics, and their real world ramifications would have to be taken with a grain of salt. If we were to accept the experiment results as highly correlated to societal behavior, China would be the most corrupt country in the world, with fake products rampantly sold on the open market with limited government crackdown. This is clearly not the case according to Transparency International: In 2010, China ranked 78th out of 178 nations in corruption. Moreover, there can be numerous other factors contributing to cheating that can render the wearing of fake clothing as irrelevant. If a single fake article of clothing didn't exist in Greece, cheating on taxes would be just as prevalent because of lax enforcement of tax regulations.
After numerous lab experiments showed cheating is highly correlated with creativity - the more creative you are, the higher your likelihood of cheating - Mr. Ariely and his partner, Francesca Gino convinced a large advertising agency to allow them to administer a series of moral dilemma questions to their employees; questions such as "How likely are you to take home office supplies from work?" What comes to mind immediately is the validity of the responses. Which employee, knowing there would be evidence of their moral compass floating out there, would respond truthfully to these questions? No matter how confidential the responses are, I for one would not fully trust that my responses wouldn't be shared with my employer. At any rate, the responses showed employees in creative positions scored poorly on the moral scale than creatively challenged accountants. Does this mean accountants are highly moral individuals because their lack of creativity reduces cheating propensity? Do the terms "creative accounting" and "cooking the books" come to mind? How about the infamous Enron accounting practices which "ignited" Mr. Ariely's interest in cheating - from the first sentence of his introduction? The creatively challenged accountants can be and are easily manipulated to report fraudulent financial results to the public.
And then there is the slight problem of overwhelming the the reader with excessive subconsciously induced cheating factors. Presenting various instigating factors of cheating may give the reader the false impression that that each factor is additive. If one factor, wearing fake clothing, increases the propensity to cheat by say 10%, the next factor, creativity surely doesn't add another 10% for a total of 20% increase in the likelihood of cheating. Many creative individuals are fashionistas, and may very well wear fake clothing which would seemingly make them uber cheaters. Contributing factors to cheating are not mutually exclusive; the impact of one factor doesn't begin where another one's ends. There is significant overlap among the various factors that contribute to cheating, e.g. deficient regulations, lax enforcement of regulations, ineffective parenting etc. Therefore, any of the motivations for cheating discussed that does not contribute materially to the outcome should be considered as irrelevant because of other competing factors, an idea that is ignored by Mr. Ariely. It would have been better to focus on, or at least highlight contributing factors that if mitigated would yield a significant positive impact in behavioral outcomes. For example, government corruption in and of itself is not detrimental to the economics of a country. Corruption combined with a flight of wealth to foreign Swiss bank accounts is detrimental. Focusing on government corruption as the culprit for ill economic impact misses the point.
Finally, and most importantly, Mr. Ariely excessively marginalizes the rational cost benefit analysis for our cheating tendencies. Early in the book, Mr. Ariely dismisses the SMORC model (Simple Model of Rational Crime) as inaccurate and incomplete. If our objective is to advance our selfish interests, many of the tendencies Mr. Ariely categorizes as irrational are in fact rational. Rational behavior may not be moral, but even with a twisted objective, behavior that furthers the objective can be considered rational. Iran, for example, is rightfully considered to be a rational actor by the likes of our top military official, Army general Martin E. Dempsey. While many of the Iranian regime's actions, such as supporting terrorism may appear irrational to us, they are perfectly within the confines of advancing their imperial interests in the Middle East from a weak military position. In the process, Iran cheats and lies continuously about anything and everything to the international community. North Korea breaks every agreement with the West, sometimes before they are implemented. Perhaps different dynamics are at play at the macro level than what Mr. Ariely describes at the individual level. The SMORC model is clearly operating in full force with these decrepit regimes, and decisions that appear irrational to Western observers may in fact be perfectly rational from the standpoint of these crooked governments.
The truth about "The Truth About Dishonesty" is that it is more about amusing individual TENDENCIES to cheat in lab experiments that may ultimately prove to be immaterial, and less about real world individual or societal contribution of these tendencies to behavioral outcomes. I'm throwing my lot in with the rational model of dishonesty.
Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, has conducted a lot of experiments and has a ton of data available for interpretation. In this book, he saves us the trouble of sifting through his data and does the interpretation himself. This is quite a time-saver, but it would be nice if he had included the data he collected so we might have an idea of how he came to his conclusions. Or, if that isn't practical, he might at least have indicated how many people he tested and a little something about their diversity. As it is, we are left assuming that, like many university-based social scientists, he gets most of his volunteers from the student population. I think that might be relevant, since the tests were mostly to determine levels of honesty or propensity to cheat in some way. Basing conclusions about honesty on a population that is possibly still forming their personal values might not be indicative of the population in general.
If you can cast your doubts aside, you will probably find The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty absorbing and thought-provoking. For instance, Ariely finds that the pharmaceutical industry has trained its sales personnel to use psychology to maximize sales, to great effect. Doctors have as little sales-resistance as the rest of us, unfortunately. This is troubling in terms of getting the appropriate care as well as affecting the cost of our care. And his conclusion that we lie more to ourselves than to others is hard to dispute.
I found a couple of Ariely's non-data-based examples problematic. In one, he quotes Picasso as having said "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." Picasso is not known to have said that, although T.S. Eliot may have said something like it. But more important, Eliot (or Picasso) never intended to imply that great artists (poets, musicians, whatever) steal. The quotation from Eliot is adapted from Shakespeare and is more in the vein of saying that great artists take old ideas and make them their own by applying their unique brand of creativity.
Later, Ariely makes a case for how people can be influenced by the behavior of people around them. He says that in medieval times some sufferers of St. Vitus' dance would start convulsing and others would join them, in a form of mass hysteria. I seemed to recall that one cause of such convulsions was eating tainted grain, so I looked it up. I found that ergotism (the grain disease) was one possible cause of muscle spasms, but that historians and doctors now believe the convulsions of St. Vitus' dance were caused by rheumatic fever. Some people do think that mass hysteria was the cause, but there is so much disagreement and doubt, that I think Ariely might have found a better example to make his point.
The two examples here are not vital to Ariely's case, but unfortunately, when a reader begins to question the small facts, it follows that they question the larger statements the author is making.