Recent Reads: The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves – Dan Ariely

I know I’m honest (mostly) but are you?  What do you fib about?  What compels people to lie outright?  If you think it would be interesting to know the science behind lying, here it is.

This is the third book by Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University.  Behavioral economics is a new field of study, crossing the practices of psychology and economics. (As of this writing, there are no degrees offered in behavioral economics, though there are courses on the topic in many universities.)  Behavioral economics differs from traditional economics in that it not only predicts human behavior, but tests it as well, a practice that would greatly benefit economic and political theory and probably save tax payers a lot of money and voters a lot of headaches sorting out which ideas will work.  Ariely’s previous books centered on “irrationality” – the antithesis of economic theory, which assumes people make rational choices, at least in the average of a population.   While this book also focuses on decision making, it is more focused on deception and its slippery slope.

Ariely was inspired to do this research after the Enron scandal, when he wondered how such a thing could have happened.  Our “fast mind” (to borrow a term from fellow behavioral economist and native countryman Daniel Kahneman) would classify the people who worked at Enron as “bad” or “evil,” making the quick and clear divisions that our fast minds like.  But how did that happen?  How did a confluence of “bad people” all end up working at Enron, a highly lauded organization just a short time before?  Was the deception intentional and planned?  Or perhaps inevitable, but due to what – not all companies become corrupt and bankrupt?   Or was there a series of unfortunate events, or bad choices, or some other means by which this group of leaders lost its way?

In his beguiling and sometimes wickedly humorous style, Ariely takes us on a journey of examining the economic model of cost/benefit analysis, his “fudge factor” and how we aid and abet one another both to cheat and to be honest.  For me there were some interesting take-aways for those of us who work with teams and organizations.  I thought about organizations that trust their members and those that don’t, and the return on investment of those policies and how that might affect the culture of the organization with the stated and implied assumptions.  Ariely’s research shows than when we can, we all cheat – a little.  The containment factor has to do with our own self-image and definition – how much will our consciouses let us get away with and still think we are good people?  The perception of fairness seems to weigh in – when we see others we align with getting away with blatant cheating, we will too (but when we see contrast ourselves with the “bad guys” cheating decreases.) Then there is the self-deception and eg


o protection factor that enables us to reset our understanding of cheating, and to rationalize the choices we have made.

The moral, perhaps, is that one doesn’t have to be evil incarnate to be part of an Enron, but perhaps this much self-awareness will enable us to stay on the right side of that line.



Related reading

How Will You Measure Your Life?  Clayton M. Christiansen, James Allworth

Leadership and Self-Deception The Arbinger Institute

Predictably Irrational Dan Ariely

The Upside of Irrationality Dan Ariely

Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman

Firms of Endearment Rajendra S. Sisodia, David B. Wolfe, and Jagdish N. Sheth

Your Brain at Work David Rock