Lies, damned lies and self-deception

September 29, 2013

Oh, what a tangled web we weave…when first we practice to deceive. Walter Scott, Marmion

People never lie so much as before an election, during a war, or after a hunt. Otto von Bismarck

Lying increases the creative faculties, expands the ego, and lessens the frictions of social contacts. Clare Boothe Luce


I haven’t done a post since the end of June and it’s been difficult to get back into the swing of things. It’s been nice to have a break from blogging and social networking. Anyway, today I’m going to be talking about one of the books I read over the summer.

The book in question is Dan Ariely’s The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves. At the heart of this book are a series of experiments organised by Ariely, an Israeli American professor of psychology and behavioural economics, in his lab. Subjects were given monetary rewards for performing different tasks. Cheating was possible. How many people would succumb to the temptation? We like to think that we are basically honest, and that cheating is what crooks like Madoff do. However, cheating is not just confined a few bad apples. Ariely and his collaborators found that lots of people cheat a little bit. Of the 30,000 subjects they tested, the 12 biggest cheaters together stole $150. However, there were also 18,000 little cheaters who stole $36,000. This idea is illustrated by an example that Ariely cites from the Ira Glass show, This American Life. An episode entitled See No Evil dealt with the disappearance of money and stock from the JohnF.KennedyCenter for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The shop was run by a team of 300 volunteers, mostly retired ladies. Although they sold $400,000 of trinkets and postcards a year, around $150,000, 40% of that total, disappeared. In a department store this figure is usually around 3%. Who was behind this pilfering? They did find one staff member with $60 of the store’s money in his pocket. Despite his sacking the losses continued. Only when cash tills were introduced did the stealing finally stop. The conclusion seems to be that many elderly, well-meaning, art-loving volunteers were helping themselves to small amounts of cash and goods worth just a few dollars a piece, when they had a chance. It shows that only a tiny minority feel comfortable stealing a huge amount, but that given the chance, nearly everyone steals and cheats a little.” The effect of this small-scale cheating can be dramatic.

Ariely has an interesting description of our selective honesty. The ambiguity is reflected in a joke from the book:

Eight-year-old Jimmy comes home from school with a note from his teacher that says, “Jimmy stole a pencil from the student sitting next to him.” Jimmy’s father is furious. He goes to great lengths to lecture Jimmy and let him know how upset and disappointed he is, and he grounds the boy for two weeks. “And just wait until your mother comes home!” he tells the boy ominously. Finally he concludes, “Anyway, Jimmy, if you needed a pencil, why didn’t you just say something? Why didn’t you simply ask? You know very well that I can bring you dozens of pencils from work.”

On the one hand we like to think that we are good honest people, but on the other hand we want to get ahead through dishonest means. Achieving both goals is complicated so we need to resort to rationalization and self-deception. We believe our own lies. Ariely also thinks that a cashless economy will tend to encourage cheaters releasing people from their moral inhibitions. All our modern payment systems are taking us away from physical money and this is a big worry.

What solutions are there? People are always going to lie. Cheating may well be contagious; we seem to be able to catch social behaviours from those around us. This is the “everybody’s doing it” principle. Ariely thinks that it is important to stop cheating before it gets out of control. This is similar to the famous “Broken windows” theory; if you repair each broken window, large-scale vandalism is less likely to occur. Ignore small cheating and it could grow.

The best we can do is to create the conditions that will favour good behaviour. Small reminders of basic moral standards are important. Ariely refers to “moral prophylactics”, the Ten Commandments, an honour code or a declaration of professional principles. Invoking moral standards reduces cheating. He thinks that it’s more effective to sign a pledge at the top of the page before filling out a form than signing a pledge after completing a form. Ariely gets his students to write out their own honour codes on assignments. The rationale is that they will be made to think about ethics rather than just signing something automatically. Traditionally religion has grappled with these questions. Catholics have confession, Jews have Yom Kippur and Muslims have Ramadan. Maybe we need some a secular version of these.

My new blog

September 29, 2013

I have a new blog called MARTIN’S VIDEO CLUB. It is a collection of videos for higher-level English students, featuring both grammar and topic based material. If you want to check it out, go here.