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
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.
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.
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.
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.
on September 13, 2012
"One percent of people will always be honest and never steal. Another one percent will always be dishonest and always try to pick your lock and steal your television. And the rest will be honest as long as the conditions are right." ~An anonymous locksmith
When I was a using addict, I lied so much that it became second nature. I told big lies, small lies, dirty lies, barefaced lies, white lies, and black ones too. My motto was, "Deny everything." Even when the deconstruction of my fabrication was readily apparent and the evidence of my malfeasance displayed before me...I lied.
I didn't realize that this particular shortcoming, one among many, was yet another manifestation of my ugly addiction. I just assumed that I was a liar, always was, and always will be, one more shameful label branded upon my less than reputable character. So I was relieved to discover that that's not who I truly am. You see, addiction cannot survive without dishonesty. Honesty is to addiction what water is to fire, what light is to darkness. The two cannot co-exist. And that would explain why the topic at my first recovery meeting was...you guessed it - honesty.
So that's why I would waste my oh-so-precious time reading a book titled "The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty". It's written by Dan Ariely who is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. He conducted many experiments to discover what motivates a person to cheat as well as what keeps them honest. He also discovered a couple of things that, counter-intuitively, have no effect on honesty.
So what increases dishonesty? Conflicts of interest, watching others behave dishonestly, the ability to rationalize our dishonesty, and, surprisingly, creativity, all seem to increase dishonesty. What decreases it? Taking pledges before the temptation, moral reminders such as honor codes or the ten commandments, also presented right before the temptation, and supervision (obviously), decreased cheating. And what had no effect?
Contrary to what you might expect, Ariely found that the amount of money to be gained and the probability of getting caught had no effect on whether a person would lie cheat or steal. And he found that most people, at least the people who participated in his experiments, will cheat a tiny bit, up to the level that allows them to retain their self-image as a reasonably honest individual.
While this book didn't exactly deal with the level of dishonesty that accompanies addiction, I still found it very interesting, chock-full of humorous anecdotes and Ariely's witty observations. I learned a little more about human nature, which is a fascinating subject to me, and you can bet that I'll be more aware of the forces at play the next time I'm tempted to lie, cheat, or steal.
Review Written by David Allan Reeves
Author of "Running Away From Me"
on September 24, 2012
This book was pretty decent until the end. Ariely blew apart his entire case when he revealed that the results were consistent across cultures in the laboratory but that that doesn't necessarily work in real life. (Brother, you said it.)
I know that experiments have varying degrees of external validity-- but the single sentence in the last chapter that revealed that these experiments had none really defeated the purpose of the whole book for me. (I have just finished another book by Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity, that demonstrated the different things that some economies can produce because of varying levels of trust. So, Southern Italy produces things that are simple enough for family businesses to produce because no one can trust anyone outside of their family. But Northern Italy has a higher culture of trust and the big factories are located there.) He did the experiment with Chinese people. I happen to live in China, and have a pretty good idea that there have NEVER been three truthful consecutive statements spoken or written in the whole of Chinese history. And yet Ariely's tests find no difference.
One more time: If the results of these experiments don't hold up to explain big, real world findings, then what is the point of the book?
The writing itself was light and breezy. (After all, it IS a pop psychology book.) And it showed me that you can take some little concept and tweak it into a million little experiments. (Boy were those matrices well-worn!)
Oddly enough, the book also demonstrated the wisdom of the Talmud/ Rabbinical reasoning. And that is: The purpose of all the cumbersome mitzvot is to keep people AWAY from breaking any big laws (murder, rape). So, if you decide to not eat dairy with a meat fork, then it is easier to not kill your neighbor. This book could possibly make for an interesting discussion in a study group, but not much more than that.
Verdict: Worth a secondhand purchase. Not worth the Kindle price.