The World is Full of Lying Liars

Dan Ariely
HarperCollins, July 2013, RRP $19.99

Look, don’t tell anyone. This is just between you and me. I have, on occasion, fudged my timesheets. There, I’ve said it. Of course, I only ever fudged a little. A smidgen, really. Imagine the fine thickness of my fingernail; that’s the degree to which I’ve fudged the occasional timesheet.

It can be that way with casual work. If you work a longer than your scheduled shift, you write down exactly, to the minute, when you finish. But perhaps, on a shift, you finish a tad early (just a little, right?). Well, you were expecting to be paid for a full shift, so it’s only fair to round up to include those final 5 minutes, right? Or 10? Or 15?

Okay, I’ll admit that I’ve experienced some uncertainty about the whole finagling process. Peer influence to the rescue! As it turns out, I’m not the only one that fudges. When I’ve gone to sign off and can see that coworkers have future-stamped their end time, well, phew. If other people are doing it, then I can too! It’s the communal fudging experience; or else my coworkers have discovered the art of time travel and are really struggling to put it to good use.

As it turns out, according Dan Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, this is pretty standard human behaviour. The fudge is actually a form of cheating. But it’s such a small cheat that we can still consider ourselves to be inherently moral people. The problem is that if everyone cheats just a little, then the cumulative value of all those little cheats can have a large (financial) impact on our environment.

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty starts with a simple experiment. Participants need to complete a series of problems within five minutes. Once the participants finish, they are marked by an assessor and paid per completed matrix. But here comes the twist. In the experimental group, the participants shred their answer sheet, tell the assessor their score, and are paid accordingly. What’s surprising is not that participants in the experimental group cheat (yes, they do), but that they only cheat a very teeny bit.

This result seems to conflict with gut instinct that says that a few people will cheat flagrantly and without shame, but most people will be honest (isn’t this what we expect from society?). Turns out, not so much. Most people will nudge up their score a few points, because, hey, who’s to know? And it happens consistently. Surely they would have gotten those questions anyway, but it’s almost lunch, and, man, if only they had some donuts.

Gradually, this base experiment is evolved and elaborated to demonstrate how susceptible we are to the influence of cheating in different situations. Rather than getting money in exchange for answers, in one version the participants are given tokens that are then exchanged for money. Cheating doubles. Tokens as an intermediary (also think in terms of credit cards and online banking) seem to create a distancing effect from the money itself, which means that taking a few extra tokens doesn’t really feel like stealing at all. Consider that when you next hear about banking fraud.

Peer influence is just as tricky. In another variation, a student wearing a jumper from the same university (an actor) jumps up as soon as the test period has started, claiming to have completed all matrices. Again, cheating spikes. It’s just like when I took a few pens home because everyone takes office supplies. They’d just get lost down draws anyway!

Of course, when a student wearing a jumper from a rival university (another actor) makes the same claim, cheating remains low. No one wants to be like those smarmy cheating bastards.

It seems that almost everyone cheats just a bit. Just enough to get a little extra value, but not so much to feel like you’re breaking the rules. And there are all kinds of circumstances where that little bit can be pushed even further. But the thing is, if everyone is getting a little extra value, that adds up. The experiments paid out hundreds of dollars to outright cheaters; people who simply claimed the full amount of money they could with no effort to disguise their dishonesty. However, it cost thousands of dollars to cover all the little exaggerations that came with most people fudging the numbers just a bit. And that’s what sticks in my head. In a society, an individual’s behaviour isn’t an isolated act. Our actions have a cumulative effect, and our part contributes to the whole. Man, it’s going to be hard to buy my own pens.

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty is a disarmingly jovial demonstration of our susceptibility to moral grey area. The subject matter could have been demoralising (cheating bastards the lot of us), but Ariely splendours in the glorious absurdity of our own self-deceptions. When I close my eyes I can see, in the educational video of my mind, participants completing tasks while wearing what they think are rip-off sunglasses and being subtly corrupted by their sun protection gear. Crazy, right? Of course, reading this book means discovering that everyone you know, including yourself, is a lying liar with his or her pants on fire. But probably only a little bit.

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