Would I lie to you? You bet I would

Published in The Daily Mail (August 17th, 2012)

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty by Dani Ariely (HarperCollins) 

Eight-year-old Jimmy comes home from school with a note from the teacher saying he has stolen a pencil from the pupil sitting next to him. His father is furious, telling his son he is very disappointed and grounding him for a week. After a long lecture, he concludes: ‘Anyway, Jimmy, if you needed a pencil why didn’t you just ask – you know I can bring you dozens of pencils from work.’

This old joke, retold in a new book by behavioural economist Dan Ariely, sums up neatly our moral ambiguity about cheating. As he demonstrates using a series of simple tests, on the one hand we see ourselves as decent and honest, social creatures that care about the wider community. On the other, we fancy a fast buck and will bend the rules if we can get away with it.

In the process, Ariely offers a fresh perspective on everything from why we give up on diets through to the logic of the ‘broken windows’ theory on crime, which found that if you crack down on minor nuisances such as graffiti you reduce more serious offences. Just putting on fake designer sunglasses is enough to more than double the chances you will cheat.

Ariely devised inventive experiments with small financial rewards to cast insights into daily life, delivering his findings in an easily accessible manner. The deeper he delved, the more apparent it became that while a handful of people cheat a lot, we all cheat a little – even though we may deny it to ourselves. This is why people are more likely to take a free can of drink from a broken vending machine than free money. Or to move a golf ball surreptitiously with their club rather than their hands. In both cases, it feels a less dishonest, more random action.

He finds creative people are more likely to be duplicitous, perhaps because their minds are predisposed to be innovative and inventive; indeed, just encouraging people to think creatively increases the likelihood of dishonesty. It may not surprise you to learn that bankers, however, were found to be twice as untrustworthy as even politicians.

Having shown human beings in such a poor light, the author concludes on an optimistic note. While both corporate and personal dishonesty may be pervasive, most of it is minor because people do not like to think of themselves as a thief or con artist. Ultimately, we are less influenced by gain and the probability of being caught than we are by morality and communal spirit.

Perhaps the most heartening test was with cab drivers. They are renowned for stunts such as ‘long-hauling’, when they boost fares by taking passengers unfamiliar with a city on detours. In Las Vegas, for instance, there is a trick that earns $92 for what should be a two-mile journey. But when a blind person entered cabs, drivers often turned off their meters without saying anything and charged significantly less than other passengers.

For all our faults, we are not dreadfully dishonest. And that’s the honest truth.

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