Reading List: “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty”

March 21st, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Why even the little white lies matter, and how to stop.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Dan Ariely, professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, literally wrote the book on irrationality, both with 2010’s “Predictably Irrational” and last year’s “The Upside of Irrationality.” But his most recent book, “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves” (Harper Perennial, out 6/5/12), takes his research about how irrational behavior shapes our lives to a darker place. He explores even the most minor underpinnings of society’s pervasively dishonest culture – and how to reverse the trend.

Ariely asserts that dishonesty is a prototypical example of those irrational tendencies that simply make us human. On one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest people; on the other, he believes we want to benefit from cheating. The idea in his book is that as long as most people feel they’re cheating just a little bit, people can benefit from dishonesty but still feel they’re essentially good. According to him, we cheat and lie to ourselves many times a day without even consciously acknowledging it, from rounding up billable hours to fudging on golf scores.

Ariely delves deeper into the causes of cheating and asserts that despite popular belief, dishonesty is not often the outcome of a deliberate cost-benefit analysis, but other hidden influences such as creativity, comparing ourselves to others, and revenge. In other words, the irrational forces that we don’t realize drive dishonest behavior.

Interestingly, he notes, it may only take a fundamental reminder to make us behave more honorably. He tells the story of a woman living on a college campus who wrote to tell him that each weekend in her dorm, the cleaning people left several rolls of toilet paper in each of two bathrooms. “It was a classic tragedy-of-the-commons type of situation,” he says, “because some people hoarded the toilet paper, [so] the public resource was destroyed for everyone else.” The young woman put a note in one bathroom asking people not to remove the shared commodity, and the rolls began reappearing. The other bathroom remained paper-free until the cleaning people returned.

What do you think of Ariely’s research? Do you agree that irrationality drives dishonesty? What are other ways we can explore honesty in our society?