“In fact, they were just like you, me, and most of the people on this planet, which means that all of us are perfectly capable of cheating a little bit.”
The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, page 238
We received these “Your Radio Diary” booklets in the mail yesterday – my husband said he answered a telephone survey a few weeks ago and agreed to complete their written survey if they sent him the pamphlet. In these diaries, we first answer a bunch of questions about our household preferences and of course the basic demographic information such as age, income, number of people in our family, etc, and then keep track of the radio we listen to over a specific week in October. And here’s the best part – they glued a “toonie” into the booklet as payment for our trouble! So what would you do? Dutifully complete the survey, take the toonie and mail the booklet back in the pre-stamped envelope? Mail the incomplete survey with the toonie still in it, back to the researchers? Or maybe keep the toonie and recycle the booklet? It is these options and the science behind our actions when faced with these options that Dan Ariely describes in his latest book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. (If you haven’t read Ariely’s other books, check out the Actionable Summaries for Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality). Ariely is a Behavioural Scientist – someone who studies human behaviour. In this book, his research is focused on people’s inclination towards dishonesty and the situations that encourage, or discourage, that behaviour.
We’re Only Human
“The good news in all of this is that we are not helpless in the face of our human foibles (dishonesty included).”
The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, page 254
I can admit it – I’ve been dishonest before. I think we can all admit that at one time or another we stretched the truth, omitted information so it wasn’t the whole truth or changed the story so it wasn’t the truth at all. It’s human nature, whether out of self-preservation or some other motivation. Ariely and his fellow scientists in the behavioural science field believe this view toward dishonesty is due to our constant battle between rationality and irrationality. “Viewed from this perspective, dishonesty is a prime example of our irrational tendencies. It’s pervasive; we don’t instinctively understand how it works its magic on us; and, most important, we don’t see it in ourselves” (page 254). Over many hours of research in many different situations, Ariely and his team of researchers realized that mental exhaustion, the chance of getting caught, and how recently we were reminded of our moral compass were just some of the variables that affected our penchant for cheating and dishonesty.
Grocery Shop After Dinner
“The mysterious connection between exhaustion and the consumption of junk food is not just a figment of your imagination.”
The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, page 98
Ever notice how full the cart/basket/shopping bags are when you go to the grocery store on an empty stomach? And how likely you are to fill those bags with junk food and not necessarily fruits and veggies? That’s because when our bodies are tired or our energy levels are low, it’s that much harder for us to listen to our own common sense and resist those sweet and savory treats. Ariely’s research proves this: we are much more likely to cheat ourselves if our defences are down. It’s the reason so many diets fail: when we’re starving or limiting ourselves, the part of our brain in charge of deliberative thinking is otherwise occupied and, exhausted, we have a much easier time rationalizing our behaviour and eating that donut. In this experiment, Ariely and his colleagues asked two groups of people to remember some numbers; the first group was asked to remember two digits and the second group had to remember a seven-digit number. They were then told to walk down the hall and repeat those numbers to the experimenters in another room. But on the way down the hall, the participants had to pass a cart filled with delicious looking pastries on one side and colourful, healthy-looking fruit on the other. They were told they could have their choice of one of the options once they recited their number to the experimenters in the other room but they had to make their selection now before going to that room. The experimenters found that those participants who only had a two digit number on their mind, more often choose a healthy piece of fruit while those who were cognitively-occupied with seven digits, more often gave in to the immediately satisfying chocolate cake. This research shows that when we are tired or otherwise occupied, the impulsive systems in our brains take over and the rational part is left wondering what happened.
It’s A Slippery Slope…
“Whether we deal with fashion or other domains of life, it should be clear that one immoral act can make another more likely and that immoral acts in one domain can influence our morality in other domains.”
The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, page 140
Another of the experiments Ariely and his team conducted had to do with designer knock-off sunglasses. They gave the participants in one group each a pair of Chloé label sunglasses and let them know that the glasses were authentic. In another other group, the participants received quality knock-offs and were told they were wearing non-authentic glasses. And in yet a third group, the participants were randomly given a pair of sunglasses but not told whether they were authentic or not. Each group was given the same task where they had opportunity to cheat while completing a mathematical challenge. What the experimenters discovered was that 30% of the participants in the authentic condition reported solving more challenges than they actually had while those participants in the fake condition reported solving 74% more than they actually had. And how about those participants in the no-information condition? 42% of those participants reported solving more challenges than they had, which was much closer to the authentic condition. This result indicated that “while wearing a genuine product does not increase our honesty (at least by much)… once we knowingly put on a counterfeit product, moral constraints loosen to some degree” (page 126). Ariely found that the first act of dishonesty can lead to another and can be particularly important in how that person views themselves in other situations from then on – it’s this first instance that is important to prevent further dishonest behaviour down the road.
Ariely’s research proves that even honest people have tendencies towards dishonesty given the right conditions. Whether we watch someone else cheat and therefore feel we have been given some sort of “social permission” to replicate that behaviour or stretch the truth because we feel like the alternative consequence is a bigger concern, we’re all human and not as morally perfect as we’d like to think. And for me – I filled out the radio survey, kept the toonie and the booklet is on its way back to the researchers for their analytical pleasure.