Podcast: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty

I was listening to a recent Point Of Inquiry podcast titled The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, where Dan Ariely explained some of the research he’s done into honesty and dishonesty.

For example, in one test, he asked people to complete a math test. Then, they were to grade their own test, put the paper into a paper shredder, and tell the researcher how many questions they got right. They would be paid one dollar for each correct answer. What he didn’t tell them was that the paper shredder was fake – they could retrieve the test and check how many questions were actually correct. What Ariely found was that the average number reported on the test was “6 correct”, but the average number of actual right answers was 4. This discrepancy wasn’t due to a small number of big cheaters. Instead, it was due to a large number of small cheaters. More specifically, out of the 30,000 people involved in his study, 12 people were big cheaters, 18,000 people (or 60%) were small cheaters, and the remaining 12,000 (40%) didn’t cheat.

One theory for the why people cheated only a little bit was that people have two opposing forces in their heads: they want to see themselves as good people and, on the other hand, they have a selfish desire to work for their own interests. So, people cheat in small ways – cheating to get an advantage, but cheating only a little bit so that they can maintain an idea of themselves as “good people”.

In the past, I’ve generally thought of people as being basically good, but after reflecting on arguments I’ve had with people on the internet over things like piracy and politics, it occurred to me that maybe this “basically good” idea was flawed. What if humans like to think of ourselves as good, but we’re also good at twisting logic so that we can get what we selfishly desire. To use a quote, “Reason is … the slave of the passions.” In this view, we manipulate our own understanding of reality so that we can attain both a sense of “I’m doing the right thing” and getting what we desire.

If this was the case, then it explains why people all over the world think of themselves as “the good guys” while fighting against other people who also think of themselves as “the good guys”. I’m sure Saddam Hussein, Ghaddafi, and Osama Bin Laden all thought of themselves as “the good guys”. In the case of dictators, I’m sure they all believe an iron-fist is necessary to stop the troublemakers, maintain order, and protect their people from outside aggression. The Orthodox Jewish settlers think the entire land of Israel should be theirs; the Palestinians think the exact opposite – both working towards what’s in their own interest. The Nazis could kill the ‘undesirables’ in society (Jews, Gypsies, etc) while maintaining themselves as the good guys – because in their worldview, those undesirables were unfairly ‘holding them down’. Of course, all of this rationalization get stronger in groups because individuals don’t even have to come-up with their own rationalizations – they can get rationalizations handed to them from demagogues, plus people tend to believe they’re doing the right thing if they’re doing what everyone around them are doing. (In fact, I’ve heard that convicted rapists often believe that lots of other people are also rapists. Presumably, the creation of this “everybody’s a rapist” fiction helps them legitimize their own actions using “everybody’s doing it” logic.)

A while back, I read an article about Somali peoples’ attitudes towards Somali pirates (the ones hijacking ships and taking hostages). As it turns out, the Somali people like the pirates because they bring money into the cities. Similarly, I had also read an interview with some Nigerian email scammers. The scammer had all kinds of excuses for why it was okay to rip off people (mostly having to do with ‘people in the West are rich’ and ‘if they fall for it, they deserve it’). Both seemed to conform to the “if it’s good for me, then it’s (objectively) good” pattern.

Ariely found that people’s willingness to cheat increased in response to how easily they could rationalize their dishonesty. In one experiment, instead of asking subjects how many answers were correct and then paying them cash, he introduced another step: he would give them tokens (instead of cash) and then the subject would walk to a second researcher and exchange the tokens for cash. This change in the experiment caused people to double their cheating. Presumably, this extra step allowed people to switch from “I’m lying to get a few extra dollars” to “I’m lying to get a few plastic tokens, no big deal, right?”

To state it in the reverse: if people have trouble rationalizing their behavior, they tended to cheat less. Most people won’t shoplift from stores or run-out on the check at a restaurant. Those things just feel wrong and they’re hard to rationalize. I couldn’t help but think about piracy and the most common excuses I hear: “I’m not stealing anything, just making a copy” or “everyone does it”. Piracy is easier to rationalize. Ariely also talks about piracy in this context – he says that piracy is just as wrong as stealing, but piracy is easier to rationalize, and as a result, people have an easier time telling themselves that “it’s okay” and they’re “good people” while doing it.

The Podcast: Point of Inquiry: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty (32 minutes long)

Here’s an RSA video about Ariely’s idea:

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