Diane talks with Ari Berman, senior reporter at Mother Jones and author of the book, “Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America.”
Most of us think of ourselves as honest, but psychology professor Dan Ariely says in fact, we all lie and cheat. In a new book, he challenges preconceptions about dishonesty, from seemingly small white lies to avoid hurting someone’s feelings to massive financial fraud like Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme. He explores how unethical behavior in the personal, professional and political worlds affects all of us. He joins Diane to explain how dishonesty can be a slippery slope, what keeps us honest and how to achieve higher ethics in our everyday lives.
- Dan Ariely Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, founder and director of the Center for Advanced Hindsight and author of "Predictably Irrational" and "The Upside of Irrationality."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Nearly everybody cheats, but usually just a little. But that little can mean a lot. In a new book, author Dan Ariely explores the nature of cheating and why we make the decisions we do. His new book is titled "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves." Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join us with your questions and comments. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir. It's good to have you here.
DR. DAN ARIELYWonderful to be here.
REHMYou've given me a little vial of pills. Tell me what these pills are for.
ARIELYWell, they're called Cure All, which is -- first of all, it's the ultimate placebo, and if you read the small print, it does everything. It's fixes hair, problems with your knees, just absolutely everything. So it's kind of a joke on the placebo industry on one hand, which is basically based on lying, and at the same time, it also has some special things to help us with dishonesty. So it helps all kinds of things on that.
ARIELYI should tell you, we also have an iPhone app, actually both on the iPhone and on the Android called Consciousness Plus, Conscious Plus, and the Conscious Plus application is about giving you excuses to either behave better or behave worse. So when you start the app, you can choose if you want the angel side or the devil side, and then you look for what kind of excuses do you want, to cheat on your diet or to behave well, to exercise or not, infidelity and so on, and on each of those things you can decide whether you want excuses that would help you behave better, or excuses that would help you misbehave.
REHMBut Dan, you're making jokes. Honesty is a very serious matter, and as we have learned in the past few years, honesty does not always seem to have been the policy of many who had access, for example, to huge amounts of money. You say that your interest in cheating sort of got ignited in 2002 with Enron. Talk about that.
ARIELYYeah. So cheating is obviously a huge problem, right? And it's not just a big problem in general, it's something that deteriorates our society. And once we get to a certain level of dishonesty, we can get to what corrupt societies are dealing with. So it's actually incredibly important to figure out, and it's incredibly important to figure out what's causing the dishonesty. Because if we're trying to prevent it, the first lesson is to figure out what caused it in the first place.
ARIELYSo when I heard about Enron initially, everybody was very fast to raise a finger and accuse the three main architects of Enron. And the question, of course, is this the right cause? I mean, if you think it's about bad apples, then you have a very simple way to stopping dishonesty. You just say, let's not hire bad apples, or let's create procedures in which would let us take bad apples and kick them out of the system. But if you think it's not about bad apples, if you think that it's about something more endemic in the system...
ARIELYDeeper in the system that is about the actual way the system is built, and then you say, Dan, it might be the case that it's not about these bad apples. And if you and I were leading Enron, we too might have misbehaved. And if that's the case, then we need to think differently about the system. So think about something like Wall Street. We can raise a finger and point to a few characters who have misbehaved on Wall Street, but if that's not the real problem, and the problem is the way the system is created, then we're not changing anything about the system. Then we're just going to get into the same problem over and over and over.
REHMDo you think about the housing market in the same way?
ARIELYI think so. From my perspective, the housing market is a symptom, it's not the cause. What the real cause is biased incentives, very complex rules, and the ability to rationalize all kinds of actions by a system.
REHMAnd that leaves the entire system vulnerable then to that kind of lying.
ARIELYThat's right. So imagine that I made you a banker on Wall Street in 2005, and imagine that I paid you $10 million a year to view mortgage backed securities as better than they really are. So now, think about what would happen with this force causing you to behave this way. Now, any sports fan know that if they go to a game and the referee calls a call against their team they think the referee is evil, vicious, or stupid or something. Every sports fan knows that their liking of a particular team paints their view of reality.
ARIELYWell, $10 million can do the same thing. That can paint your view of reality in the same way. Now, on top of that, there are other forces that make it easier to rationalize it. So not only do you have this push that will make you want to see reality in a different way, now you have things like it feels like a game, it's not really about money, everybody else around you is doing those things, and all of a sudden you get to a system where it's easy for us to see reality in a different way, and creating tremendous devastation for society and for those people as well.
REHMDo you think that this kind of thinking, this kind of behavior, has become more prevalent in say the last 20 or 30 years, or have we as human beings always been vulnerable to the possibility?
ARIELYSo I think both are right. I think we haven't really changed much as human beings, just because technology has moved around, our main structure of our brain has not changed so much. However, there have been a couple of things that I think are important to realize, and those social things might have created changes. So let me take a step back and tell you how we measure dishonesty, and then tell you about this.
ARIELYSo for us to measure dishonesty, we always try to create a very strict standard for what dishonesty is. So in our experiments, we take a sheet of paper with 20 simple math problems, problems that everybody could solve and we give it to people, and we say, hey, you have five minutes, solve as many of those as you can, go. People solve as many of those as they can in five minutes. At the end of the five minutes we say stop, put your pencil down, count how many questions you got correctly, and once you know that number, go to the back of the room and shred your piece of paper.
ARIELYOnce you finish shredding it, come to the front of the room and tell us how many questions you got correctly. People do this, they come to the front of the room, they say they solved six problems, we pay them six dollars, they go home. What the people in the experiment don't know is that we played with the shredder only shred the sides of the page. So when you put it through the shredder, you get the satisfaction of feeling it's being shredded, but it's not. So we can jump into the recycling bin and find out how many questions people really solved correctly. So what did we find?
ARIELYLots of people cheated just by a little bit. In fact, the average person solved four problems, and reporting to be solving six. And just kind of to give you a feeling for that, in the whole book I describe experiments with about 30,000 people. And from those 30,000 people, we had about 12 who cheated a lot, and they stole together about $150 from me. From those 30,000 people, we had about 18,000 who stole a little bit, but there's so many of them, together they stole about $36,000 from me.
ARIELYAnd if you think about it, that's really kind of the essence of the issue. There's some big cheaters out there, and we pay lots of attention to them, but I think that the majority of the economic devastation from cheating comes from a lot of little cheaters who cheat...
REHMIf you talk about shoplifting, for example, perfect example of people who may cheat a little bit, but are affecting the entire process.
ARIELYSo the shoplifting is one example. You can think about brokers on Wall Street, right? I mean, very few people cheat in an egregious way, but what happens if you shave a fraction of a penny here or there every day just a couple of times. Together, because they're so many of them, they accumulate. Now, let's go back to your question. Have things gotten worse over time? So in one experiment we did the following. We gave people the same task, but when they finished they came to us and instead of saying, Mr. Experimenter, I solved six problems, give me $6, they ask for tokens.
ARIELYThey say Mr. Experimenter, I solved X problems, give me X tokens, and we pay them in tokens. They took these tokens, they walked 12 feet and changed them for dollars. Now, what's the difference? The difference is that now when you're looking somebody in the eyes and you lie to them, you don't lie for money, you lie for something else. Something that would become money very quickly, but is not money yet. What happened? Our participants doubled their cheating.
REHMDoubled their cheating.
ARIELYDoubled their cheating. And think about it. How comfortable -- you don't have to answer me. How comfortable would you be taking 50 cents from a petty cash box compared to taking a pencil from the office? They feel very different.
ARIELYIn fact in another study, we did a study about a thousand golf players, and we said to these golf players, imagine you want to move your ball by four inches. It's in the rough and you want to move it by four inches, how would you feel about picking it up and moving it by four inches? And people said, this is awful, and I couldn't think about it. I would never do it. Nobody I know would do it. Then we said, what about kicking it a little bit with your shoe? Oh, that's much easier, of course.
ARIELYAnd what about hitting it with your club? That's even easier.
ARIELYAs the distance between us and our actions increases, it is easier for us to be dishonest.
REHMSo what you're saying is that all of us in one way or another cheat a little bit...
REHM...and that has not only an impact on society as a whole, but that getting away with those tiny amounts of cheating may insight us to go onto further and larger examples of cheating.
ARIELYThat's right. And what we do in society is we're creating things that have this distance more and more. Everything about the Internet is creating distance between us and our actions. It's created a distance between us and the people who would suffer the consequences. If you're dealing mortgage-backed securities, think about how many steps there are between you and the consequences of your action and how easy it is, and if you're a lobbyist in Washington, I mean, think about all the things that create lots and lots of distance from the actual action.
ARIELYAnd I'll give you another example is downloading illegal stuff from the Internet. When I ask my students about it, almost everybody has some illegal content on their computers, and when I asked them how embarrassed they would be about it, they just don't care. They said even if the New York Times had an essay that they had illegal downloaded stuff, they wouldn't care.
REHMDan Ariely, he's professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. His new book is titled "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty." Do join us. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd if you just joined us, Dan Ariely is with me. He's professor of psychology in behavioral economics at Duke University, author of a new book titled, "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone - Especially Ourselves." And you can join us by phone, by email, follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Before the break, we were talking about the small actions and then the question becomes how they affect the larger world.
ARIELYYeah. So, there's -- when you and I look at the big cheaters, we say to ourselves, we could have never done the whole sequence of what they have done. This is unconceivable. But of course it's not clear that the big cheaters thought about the whole sequence of their actions from the beginning. Instead when I talk to all kinds of people who've been in prison for all kinds of crimes and also judges and lawyers, I find that mostly it's about one step.
ARIELYPeople take one step, just for now, just for this one quarter. And once we have taken that step, they become slightly different people. They've rationalized them.
REHMGive me an example.
ARIELYOne example is a case of MCI, in the case of the fraud at MCI with accounting. What happens once you do something for one quarter, all of a sudden you think to yourself you're doing it for one quarter. And then what happens at the end of that quarter? You've gotten used to something. You've done something already. The barrier of doing it the second time is much, much lower.
ARIELYYou know, even somebody in the police force told me that it's really hard for police to shoot a criminal for the first time. But once they shoot somebody, shooting a second time is much, much easier and they need to be incredibly more careful about it. Once we misbehave in a certain way, it's really easy to misbehave a second time.
REHMOf course, you're not necessarily implying that police shoot someone for the wrong reasons.
ARIELYNo, no, no. I'm just saying for whatever...
ARIELY...whatever you do. Now, we've done these experiments in which we give people chances to cheat many, many times. And what we see is for a long time, they kind of balance it. They cheat a little bit, they try to feel good about themselves, they kind of keep themselves to a small amount of cheating. But then at some point, many people switch and start cheating all the time.
ARIELYAnd we call this the what the hell effect.
REHMThe what the hell effect.
ARIELYAnd what's the idea? The idea is that what we find is that people try to balance two forces. We try to feel good about ourselves and we try to be slightly dishonest. Feeling good about ourselves is the way we want to view ourselves. And benefiting from dishonesty is a selfish immediate motivation. And we try to balance those, and as long as we cheat just a little bit we can balance it.
ARIELYBut if you step over the line at some point and you can't think of yourself as a good person, you say to yourself I might as well enjoy it and then you go all the way.
REHMI have an email here which brings up a subject that is very much in the news right now. The email says simply, what in the world would explain the brilliant Fareed Zakaria's plagiarism? How do you respond to that?
ARIELYSo, of course I don't know the exact details and I haven't looked at this. But I will tell you who that I think many more of us are capable all kinds of bad things over time and under pressure. And my guess is that in his mind, these were not acts of cheating at the moment that they were taking place. Our capacity for rationalizing things is really quite, quite amazing. Now if you try to rationalize something big, all of a sudden it's very, very hard to do.
ARIELYBut if you do something quickly and you say, oh, this should have been like this and then you do something else. And then you could say, I could have written this. And I probably would have written this if I had the time and so on. All of those excuses kind of increase over time. And beyond a particular case, I think we see examples of this everywhere. And I think what it tells us is how important rules and guidelines are.
ARIELYIf we have fuzzy rules and fuzzy guidelines of what's acceptable, professional rules of ethics for example. Then we don't know where we are. But the moment we have very strict guidelines, then we know exactly where we are and we're not going pass them.
REHMDid you ever find yourself confronted with one of those choices?
ARIELYMany times. I can tell you two stories, one with (word?) on both sides. So, as you know, I was badly injured many years ago and I spend many years in hospital. I was badly...
ARIELYBadly burned, almost 70 percent of my body.
REHMAnd how did that happen?
ARIELYAnd you know what a magnesium flare is? It's one of those bombs that that military sends up to the sky to light up a battlefield. And one of those by accident got exploded next to me. So I...
REHMWhere were you?
ARIELYI was in Israel at the time. And basically it was very, very hot flames and very, very close proximity. And I got very badly burned. And we all had little burns and they'd go away, extensive burns are not the same. And so I spent a long time in hospital. I got lots of burns, lots of treatments. But going back to the conflicts of interest. About quite a few years after I left the hospital already, I came back for a check-up.
ARIELYAnd the head of the burn department finds me and said, Dan, I have a new fantastic treatment for you. Come with me. So I go with him. And the left side of my face is not burned. So when I shave I have stubble, little black dots. And the right side of my face is burned, so I have no stubble. So what was his suggestion? He was going to tattoo the right side of my face to be the same as the left side of my face.
ARIELYSo he said, go home and shave. And I go home and I think to myself, what kind of shave do I want to be symmetrical? Do I want the morning shave? The five o'clock shadow? Which is the best one? So I picked the shave that I think is the right way. I go back to him and I said, you know what, I'm not sure I want this. I said, can you show me some pictures of people you've done this?
ARIELYSo he shows me two pictures of other people that he did this with, but he can't show me the whole face. He shows me just the cheeks. And, you know, sure enough, they look like a cheek with little black dots. Then I say, you know, what happens when I grow older and my hair becomes white? He said, don't worry, we can laser it out when the time. I said, you know what, I just don't think it's for me. I don't think it's for me. Thank you, but no thank you.
ARIELYAnd then he gives me the biggest guilt trip I ever got. And he said, Dan, what's wrong with you? Do you enjoy feeling -- being non-symmetrical? He said, do you enjoy looking differently? He said, do women feel sorry for you and give you sexual favors, which by the way never happened. And this was shocking to me, because I was there for so many years.
REHMI'm shocked as I hear this.
ARIELYYeah. So, I left his office. I went to his deputy and I said what's going on. And his deputy told me that they had two participants that did this already. And they were looking for a third one for an academic paper.
ARIELYNo, here's the thing, this was a fantastic physician. This right side of my eyebrow, he worked eight hours to create this. He took blood vessels -- amazing work. He was a really caring physician. But at that moment, his conflicts of interest, his reason to get me to want to do it for academic paper overshadowed his desires.
ARIELYNow, I have to say, I was on the other side as well. I'll tell you one quick story. I read an experiment at some point and I was hoping that one group will perform well and one group will not perform well. And it's basically what as I expected. But in the group that I wanted to perform well, there was one participant who was just off, like he was -- like the worst performance possible.
REHMAnd you didn't expect that.
ARIELYI didn't expect it. I was quite disappointed. I looked at him. He was 25 years older than anybody else in this sample and I remember there was one older drunken gentleman who came to the experiment. So I thought, let's take him out. And the moment I took him out from the sample, the data looked beautiful. However, two days later, the students asked me what would have happened if this drunken guy was in the other group, the group we expected not to perform well?
ARIELYNow we probably would have never looked at the data. And even if we did, we probably would have a theory about why drunk people are good for us in the experiment. Now here's the thing for me, when I was taking his data out initially, I was thinking like I'm working for science, right? I did not see myself as lying at all. I was thinking I was, you know, like a knight in shining armor, paving the way for science to shine through.
ARIELYBut nevertheless, I was doing the opposite. But because my conflicts of interest was so strong, I wanted to see the data instantly, I could convince myself that this is how things work. And this is I think is the general procedure of how things work.
REHMDo you think that Bernie Madoff, for example, was considering early on the pluses and minuses, the cost-benefit or was he just moving forward?
ARIELYSo, I've been trying to talk to Madoff. He is not willing to talk to me so far. He's a neighbor. He also lives in North Carolina now. He's in prison there. I suspect that he did not think about the long term consequences of his game, which I think is evident by two things. One that he did not have an escape route. I mean, if he thought carefully about something, he should have had an island somewhere and with no extradition and deal with the US, some extra passports.
ARIELYI mean, with so much money, he could have done a lot. The second he ended what he did and his son committed suicide suggests to me he did not think about the long term consequences. And, you know, more than that, it's kind of amazing that people in general are just not good in thinking about the long term consequences of almost anything. We overeat, under save, text and drive.
ARIELYI mean, think about all kinds of behaviors in which was good for us in the long term, it's not what's good for us in the short term and we keep on doing what's short term, not long term.
REHMAnd what you're saying there is that we're actually being dishonest with ourselves.
ARIELYIf we think we act like the long term consequences, I think we are fooling ourselves. And you know what's really sad is that if we create policies that are trying to curb dishonesty by creating harsher punishment, it's not going to work. That is the theory these days. The theories are that criminals are thinking what's the cost, what's the benefit, what's the chance I'll get to prison, how much time will I get? But if people don't think about it, then we're missing the boat. We're creating huge punishment, but we're not really decreasing crime.
REHMDan, we're in the midst of a very important presidential campaign. What about politicians? What about the long and short term objectives of those politicians? And how the cost-benefit analysis of honesty, for instance, dishonesty could play out there?
ARIELYSo, I could tell you a few things. One is we did an experiment in which we try to see what happens when people cheat for a group. So imagine there's one condition when I cheat for myself, so that every time I cheat I would gain from it. There's another possibility in which you and I are a team. And if I cheat, you also get to gain from it. What happens when we create this social utility? People cheat more.
ARIELYWe call this altruistic cheating. And if you and I become better friends, now my cheating goes even higher. So I think one thing that happens to politicians is that they have an easy time being dishonest because they're thinking they're doing it for the good of other people. It's sort of like Robin Hood. I can convince myself very easily that if you vote for me, even if I had to lie a bit to get your vote, all of a sudden it justifies it because you're going to be better off because of that.
ARIELYThe second thing is that we just need a study in which we ask people how much they're willing for their politicians to be dishonest to achieve the goal. And we find that people are willing to have their politicians lie to a much higher degree that they're willing, the opposing ones. So Democrats wanted Obama to be more dishonest, the Republicans wanted Romney to be more dishonest than Obama. And I think...
REHMIf it means winning.
ARIELYIf it means winning for them. So both Republicans and Democrats believe, in some sense, that the end justify the means and the dishonesty is just a way to achieve it. Now, it's kind of hard to figure out because the system has so much dishonesty in it already. So it could be that what people are saying is, you know, there's so much dishonesty, I much rather than my person be better than that.
ARIELYBut here's the bright point. And when we do our experiments, we do them sometimes in universities and sometimes we do them in bars. And when we do them in bars, we also create -- our common payment method is that such that every four questions you answer correctly, you get the amount of money equal to a glass of beer. And this way we can run our experiments across the world, in different places and this is our international currency.
ARIELYAnd when we run our experiment in Israel, we find that the Israelis and the Americans cheat the same way. When we run it in Turkey, we find the Turkish and the Americans cheat the same way. The Italian, the Chinese, the Canadians, everybody cheat the same way in our experiments.
ARIELYWe only found one difference. And the difference we found was when we went to a bar here in Washington, D.C. and we tempted -- a bar that the congressional staffers hang out in and we went to a bar in New York City where bankers hang out and this was the only place we found the difference in dishonesty. So let me ask you, who do you think is more dishonest -- the politicians or the bankers?
REHMI think I'm going to take the 5th on this.
ARIELYOkay. So I'll tell you that most people predict it's the politicians and I thought so too, but it's the bankers.
REHMIt's the bankers.
ARIELYThe bankers cheated 2 to 1. However, these were congressional staffers, which are only junior politicians.
REHMDan Ariely, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have lots of callers. We're taking the phones. First to Indianapolis. Good morning, Curtis, you're on the air.
CURTISHi, Diane, thank you very much for taking my call.
CURTISHaving talked with some students in various schools of business, I've been hearing is they're teaching business ethics as kind of a joke. There is little time that's being spent on actual business ethics, but they're spending a huge amount of effort on how to make money in almost devious ways because it's so complex. Are we actually producing dishonesty in this fashion?
ARIELYSo, I think yes on both accounts. So, first of all, I think that, again, the way we find dishonesty works is through rationalization. You want to see reality in a certain way, the rules are fuzzy and the question is what's rationalizing for you? So we are finding, for example, that using the terms shareholder value all of a sudden give you a rationalization to behave in the way that is selfishly good for you.
ARIELYI mean, you can also think about tax reforms and saying, to what extent are people voting or looking at the world from the perspective that they want to look at the world and to use ideology, like economic ideology of shareholder value, words like small government and so on to justify what's good for them selfishly. So, I think business schools, in some sense, I mean I teach in a business school too, are many times giving people frameworks that allow them to justify their selfish behavior.
ARIELYLike if you think about Adam Smith, the Invisible Hand, it's basically saying as long as you behave unselfishly as good for you, everything will maximize itself and therefore go ahead and be as selfish as you can because this is overall good. The other thing I want to point out is about classes on ethics. So, if you think back to the basic experiment we do in which people shred and so on, we did one experiment in which we asked people at MIT and Yale to sign the honor code.
ARIELYSo they basically signed I declare that I understand this survey falls under the MIT or Yale honor code. And then they finish doing the study. They shredded the piece of paper. What happened now? No cheating whatsoever. And that's despite the fact that neither MIT nor Yale have an honor code. So people sign the statement about the little exam and they didn't cheat at all.
REHMAnd they signed that statement right before the exam.
ARIELYThat's right, that's right.
REHMNo distance between.
ARIELYThat's right, that's right. And then we ran this experiment also at Princeton. Now Princeton has a very, very strong honor code. They take the freshmen, they run them through a week-long crash course on morality, lectures, discussion, the acapella group has a song about dishonesty. We waited two weeks after this crash course on morality and we tested the Princeton students.
ARIELYWhat happened? They were just like the MIT and the Yale students. When they signed the honor code, they did not cheat. When they did not sign, they cheat. Now this is good news and bad news. The good news is that people, if you get them to sign just before, they stop cheating. The bad news is that the crash course on morality is unlikely to be effective.
REHMAnd the book is called, "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty."
REHMOne emailer would like to know, Dan, whether there's any society in the world that does not lie or cheat.
ARIELYSo we haven't found one yet. I mean, there's all kind of societies to look into but I think there's probably not going to be one. And here's a way to think about it. We actually teach people to lie and we teach people that there's lots of social niceties that we make, right. I mean, the standard question of, honey how do I look in that dress, right? Nobody would tell their kids, always tell the truth and nothing but the truth when somebody asks you this question.
ARIELYAnd I think what happened is that in society we learn that other things are important as well. We learn that the feelings of other people are important, that honesty's not always the most important one.
REHMOf course, yes.
ARIELYThere's an interesting story in the Bible. And the story in the Bible is that God comes to Sara and he said, Sara you're going to have a son. And Sara said, how can I have a son when my husband is so old? This is my translation of the story, by the way. And then God goes to Abraham and said, Abraham you're going to have a son and Abraham said, did you tell Sara? And God said, yes. And Abraham said, what did Sara say? And God said, Sara said, how could she have a son when she is so old.
ARIELYAnd the religious callers have wondered, how could God have lied? How could it be that Sara said, how could I have a song when my husband is so old, and God is representing it as she doubting herself. And what they came up with the conclusion was that it's okay to lie for peace at home and Hebrew it's called (word?) . And I talked to Jonathan Sacks about it, who is the chief rabbi in England, a very, very smart thoughtful guy. And what he said was that there's lots of human values. Honesty is one of them, but only one of them and not all human values are compatible with other human values all the time.
ARIELYAnd there's a question of what do we do when these human values collide and which one wins? And in Judaism, it's been accepted that peace is more important. And, for example, Immanuel Kant asked the question, if somebody comes to your door and -- a Nazi comes to your door and asks you, are you hiding a Jewish girl in your house, and if it's the truth, you should say the truth. In Judaism, the solution has been that you should never tell the truth in that case.
ARIELYBut here's the thing, we learn in our social life that the truth is not always the most important. And I think it's okay because you probably don't want to live with somebody who always tells the truth, as your spouse. But then we take the same lessons and we get them to the workplace and to ethics and in politics and in business. And I think there the rules should be very different because if you're an accountant I don't want you to have a different truth or not want to offend somebody and because of that had different numbers.
ARIELYSo I think it's incredibly important to have the separation between our social life and our professional life. The question is, can we psychologically create this barrier and make things very differently.
REHMHere's an email from Peter in Tarrytown, N.Y. He says, "There's an old joke that goes, how can you tell when a politician is lying. Answer, his or her lips are moving. Politicians routinely avoid answering questions. Does that meet the criterion of a lie? And if not how is it different?
ARIELYSo I think it is a lie because they're pretending that they're answering the question. But I think it's an easier lie than an explicit lie. So if you think back to this idea of stealing money directly versus doing something through expense reports for example, I think the direct and indirect lying feel the same thing. I think directly lying feels worse. If you lie directly you would not sleep as well. If you indirectly lie, I think it's just easier to rationalize and not feel that you're actually lying.
REHMHowever, I must say it is so frustrating to interview a politician who continues to repeat the same point he or she wishes to repeat rather than answer the question. To Goshen, Ind., good morning, Lindsay.
LINDSAYGood morning. I had a question for your guest.
LINDSAYI was wondering how he would respond to the Christian teaching that all of mankind has fallen and what role religion plays in his studies?
ARIELYOkay. So I think that it's true, that we're all faulty in some way and I think it's a great realization. So, you know, one of the things that I often think about is that studying behavior economics and studying the faults of human behavior and cheating is just one part of what I study. I study all kinds of faults in thinking. It's a little bit depressing, right. You wake up every morning and you say, look how faulty we are.
ARIELYThe good news is that if you understand where we are predictably and systematically faulty you can think about how to improve it, right? Even to say how do we stop people from texting and driving and get people to eat better and get people to be more honest. And how do we improve? So I think that's one thing.
ARIELYThe second thing is that I'm becoming more and more interested in religion. I think there's some lessons that religion has gotten in a very important way that we are just now starting to understand. I'll give you one example. We talked earlier about the what-the-hell effect, about how people start cheating a little bit and then at some point they say, I'm not a good person, I might as well go all the way. We thought what would ever stop people -- what would ever stop people from cheating? If you think of yourself as a good -- bad person you're going to hell anyway, why would you ever stop?
ARIELYSo then we thought about the Catholic confession and we went to Italy to talk to the Catholic priest and said, please explain to us the logic of confession. And this is not to offend any Catholics but if you thought from an economic perspective about confession, confessing suggests that people should cheat more. In fact, they should be dishonest just before they go to confession.
REHM...because they'll be forgiven.
ARIELYThat's right. You'll minimize the time in purgatory, right, and you'll be forgiven. But of course that's not how the priests think about it. So here are three theories to how confession could work. One, is that you think to confession upfront. You say to yourself, I can steal this whatever and, you know, I can rob the gas station but I might have to talk to the priest -- I'll have to talk to the priest. That's not worth it. I won't do it.
ARIELYAnother theory is that you just -- it's a little bit like you're signing the honor code. You just get out of confession, you feel good and pure and wonderful and we find some evidence for that. But the most interesting thing is that we find that confession allows people to open a new page. So you cheat a little bit, you start cheating a lot. If we give you a chance for confession, and we use a nonreligious confession, please write down what you've done badly and shred the piece of paper -- ask forgiveness, whatever you believe in, shred the piece of paper. What happened now people open a new page and start fresh.
ARIELYNow this is basically what South Africa did. If you think about the Reconciliation Act, how do you move from apartheid to a post-apartheid? You can't just do it smoothly. So they stopped and they said, here are all the awful things we've done and we're sorry and we're going to try anew. Now do you really erase apartheid? Of course not, but can you start fresh? I think yes.
REHMLindsay, thanks for your call. Here's an email from Alan. "How does lying and cheating vary by age from young adulthood through middle age to old age?
ARIELYSo we haven't tested very young kids, but in our sample, which is from about 18 to 60 plus, we don't really find differences. Now, here is something to think about, and I told you before that we don't find differences across cultures, Israel, China, Italy and so on. We also don't find differences across age. But our experiments are kind of detached from a cultural context. They're general, they're abstract. You solve these matrices, you steal money. It's not the part of anything specific that you're used to in your culture.
ARIELYAnd because of that our experiments really captured the basic human ability to cheat a little bit and rationalize it, what we call the fudge factor. And that's not different. Now I think that culture does have an effect, it does have a meaning but it works on top of that. For example, some cultures take a topic like plagiarism in school and say this is something important or this is something unimportant. Some cultures take cheating on taxes and say this is important or not important. Some cultures take the honor of politicians and saying this is important or some take infidelity and say this is important or not important.
ARIELYSo in terms of the basic ability to be dishonest and rationalize, we don't find any difference between ages. However, I do think it's possible that as people get more experienced in cheating in a particular domain, their subculture could define that in different ways than other people. For example, illegal downloads. Young people find no issues with that. All the people find it very, very different but it's not about the basic fudge factor. It's about how they're rationalizing that particular domain of behavior.
REHMTo West Bloomfield, Mich. Good morning, Lauren.
LAURENGood morning. Thank you for taking my call.
LAURENI'm curious if your guest could answer the question as to whether or not a early life experience could increase one's guilt about cheating? At a very early age, I was caught by my sister taking just a few cents from the floor of a toy room of a neighbor and she shamed me and made me bring it back. And every since then, I've had great feelings of what is right and wrong about stealing. And it bothers me that even my children, who I've tried to instill that in, find it so easy to download things from the internet, like you say. And I'm just wondering whether or not these early life experiences can shape other people or if I'm unique?
ARIELYSo first of all, we're not sure you're unique. We'll have to test you, right? Right now, it's just what you're saying about yourself. And we find that lots of people think that they're honest until they think about it. Actually there was a beautiful study in which they took two people in the room and they said, you have ten minutes to introduce yourself to each other.
ARIELYAnd then they get out of that room and they said, did you lie in the last ten minutes, and people said, no, of course not. And then they play to them the tapes of what they've actually said and on average, people lied two or three times in those ten minutes. So we have a very different view of ourselves than the reality. Now as for your question, the truth is we don't know. But I think that what is important is whether people would remember that lesson. You know, if you have a lesson and it goes away, then it's not going to happen.
ARIELYThe question is, are you going to think about it? In which domains of life are you going to think about it? So people are really good at partitioning different lives. You know, people who are dishonest in business might not necessarily be dishonest in sports. And people who are dishonest in illegal downloads might not be necessarily fudging expense reports. So the question is do you remember this and do you generalize it to other domains in life? And if you do then I think it might actually have long term effect.
REHMAll right. And to Pittsburgh, Pa. Good morning, Nick. Welcome to the program.
NICKHello. Thank you for taking my call.
NICKBut I was wondering about religion in -- where some -- you have some people who are -- maybe slightly make small lies for the better -- you know, for the better good or something like that or -- and if you understand what I mean. I had my thoughts composed earlier. This is the first time I've called. But I guess this is what I mean.
REHMWell, we're glad to have you. I think on the...
REHM...you may have said to Natalie something about people claiming to do God's work stretching the truth or using that as perhaps an excuse to commit terrible acts.
ARIELYYeah, I mean, the amount of excuses is really kind of incredible, but given that the caller is from Pittsburgh, can I tell you a story about Pittsburgh?
ARIELYSo we did a study in the same way I described earlier with two changes. One is we prepaid people. We gave them an envelope with all the money and we said, at the end of the experiment pay yourself and leave us the money you didn't make. And we also had an acting student. And that acting student 30 seconds into the experiment said, I finished everything. What do I do next? The experiment said, you finished everything. Take the money and go home.
REHMTake the money and go.
ARIELYWhat happened to other people? Everybody else cheated more. Now here's the thing and why did people cheat more, because they found it socially acceptable or because they knew there were not punishment? Now we ran this experiment with Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. And in the second version of the experiment the acting student, we dressed him in a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt.
ARIELYSo think about what happened. You sit in a room, somebody cheating in an egregious way, you're on question one. There's no question that they have cheated but they don't wear a University of Carnegie Mellon, like you, sweatshirt anymore. They're wearing the University of Pittsburgh. What happens now? Now cheating actually goes down. And what it basically suggests is that we are influenced by other people around us but only if we think that their behavior is indicative of our social norm of our group.
ARIELYAnd to the extent that we see people in their in group misbehaving there's more and more chance of misbehaving. But if it's people from a different group we don't associate with it doesn't have this effect. So think about politics for example. What happens when we have politicians misbehaving? In some sense they're establishing a new norm for how it's okay for politicians to behave. And the more we actually publicize it in the media the more people think that this is actually an okay way for them to behave.
REHMAnd you're listening to "the Diane Rehm Show." Nick, thanks for your call. And finally to Tyler, Texas. Good morning, Bobby, you're on the air.
BOBBYGood morning. Thank you for taking my call. You've -- man, it's just a fascinating topic. I'm sure it's a fascinating book. There's so much I'd like to talk to you about but I'm going to go back to my original question.
BOBBYKind of back at the beginning of what you're talking about and just over the course of this conversation it seems like there's a connection to us versus them mentality. And I'd just kind of like to hear you talk about that in forms of an illusion of distance between two people where like in South Africa, you touched on that. You've been in Israel. Politics -- you know, people who create an illusion of distance between them and their neighbor in order to commit crimes against them, you know, the Holocaust, the genocide, things like that.
BOBBYI just -- and even in the -- in close knit religious circles, you know, priests and altar boys, you know, people, you know, stabbing each other in the back in business. And just can you kind of talk about, you know, how us and them mentality kind of factors into...
ARIELYAbsolutely. So first of all, thank you for your compliments. There are beautiful results showing that when you give people compliments they like you more and they think higher of you, even if you're not sincere. So thank you very much for that.
REHMBut I think he was very definitely.
ARIELYAnd in terms of the us versus them I think there're kind of two important parts to it. The us means that when people in our close proximity behave in a certain way that's how we define what is okay and not okay. Is it okay to download illegal movies? Is it okay to speed? Is it okay to miss...
REHMYeah, what is cheating...
REHM...and how you measure it.
ARIELYAnd then the us versus them really helps us not think about the other people as individual victims. It creates a distance, right. They're kind of a anonymous general group that all of a sudden you can misbehave toward. This is why some of the results on breaking stereotypes is about getting to know people and getting to know examples from the group of people that you usually think of as very separate.
ARIELYAnd I think lots of atrocities are created like this because of the us versus them in thinking of it not as an individual act of misbehavior but some kind of general almost game like behavior. And if you can justify with some ideology then you help further the rationalization.
REHMDan Ariely. He's professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. His new book is titled "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone -- Especially Ourselves." Really fascinating. Thank you so much.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
Diane talks with Ryan Goodman, Chaired Professor of Law at New York University School of Law and co-editor-in-chief of the national security online forum, Just Security, about what we're learning - and what we still need to find out.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson’s online newsletter, “Letters from An American,” became a hit during the Trump presidency. Her thoughts on the Republican party now, the beginning of the Biden administration, and where to look in American history for parallels to today.
Diane talks with Jim Tankersley, economics reporter at The New York Times and author of the recent book, "The Riches of This Land: The Untold, True Story of America's Middle Class."