THE HONEST TRUTH ABOUT DISHONESTY

I'm coming to love Dan, he's a really fun character (fascinating life story) and seems to have created the funnest experiments and studies. He also writes in a fun, easy to read, engaging way - would recommend his books.

Actionable Takeaways:

  • Get a second opinion on major decisions (like health) and ideally an opinion from someone who has nothing to benefit (trusting intellectual disinterest, Naval Ravikant), as even a disclosure of conflict of interest does little to mitigate against bias and dishonesty

  • People are incredibly (and unknowingly) susceptible to bribes - also keep this in mind when considering conflicts of interest

  • Be conscious of your ego depletion throughout the day: if you want to be productive, make sure you're in an environment that does not challenge your self control; if you want to have fun, try to deplete your ego first, you'll be a lot more generous with yourself

  • You cannot train temptation, you can only make yourself more likely to fall to it so don't even try

  • Creative people (whatever that means) are much more likely to lie, but we do need them to push everything forwards - intelligence hasn't been shown to be connected with honesty in either way

  • If you want to reduce the likelihood of cheating use: pledges, signatures, moral reminders and supervision, what increases dishonesty is the ability to rationalise, conflicts of interest, creativity, starting with an immoral act, being ego depleted, the potential for others to benefit from our dishonesty, watching dishonesty in others

There’s one way to find out if a man is honest—ask him. If he says “yes,” he is a crook. —GROUCHO MARX

Why Are We Dishonest

  • Both Becker’s and Jeff’s approach to dishonesty are comprised of three basic elements: (1) the benefit that one stands to gain from the crime; (2) the probability of getting caught; and (3) the expected punishment if one is caught. By comparing the first component (the gain) with the last two components (the costs), the rational human being can determine whether committing a particular crime is worth it or not.

  • These results suggest that the probability of getting caught doesn’t have a substantial influence on the amount of cheating. Of course, I am not arguing that people are entirely uninfluenced by the likelihood of being caught—after all, no one is going to steal a car when a policeman is standing nearby—but the results show that getting caught does not have as great an influence as we tend to expect, and it certainly did not play a role in our experiments.

  • This result suggests that cheating is not driven by concerns about standing out. Rather, it shows that our sense of our own morality is connected to the amount of cheating we feel comfortable with. Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.

  • This is where our amazing cognitive flexibility comes into play. Thanks to this human skill, as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvellous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalisation, and it is the basis of what we’ll call the “fudge factor theory.

  • As we’ve already learned, people don’t need to be corrupt in order to act in problematic and sometimes damaging ways. Perfectly well-meaning people can get tripped up by the quirks of the human mind, make egregious mistakes, and still consider themselves to be good and moral. It’s safe to say that most dentists are competent, caring individuals who approach their work with the best of intentions. Yet, as it turns out, biased incentives can—and do—lead even the most upstanding professionals astray.

  • We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings.

How We Really Think About Honesty

  • In his 1889 novel, Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog), in which he tells a story about one of the most famously lied-about topics on earth: fishing. Here’s what he wrote: I knew a young man once, he was a most conscientious fellow and, when he took to fly-fishing, he determined never to exaggerate his hauls by more than twenty-five per cent. “When I have caught forty fish,” said he, “then I will tell people that I have caught fifty, and so on. But I will not lie any more than that, because it is sinful to lie.”

  • Schrödinger’s cat story might serve us well here when thinking about golf scores. A golf score might be a lot like Schrödinger’s alive-and-dead cat: until it is written down, it does not really exist in either form. Only when it’s written down does it obtain the status of “objective reality.

How Money Ties Into Lies

  • I have to confess that, although I had suspected that participants in the token condition would cheat more, I was surprised by the increase in cheating that came with being one small step removed from money. As it turns out, people are more apt to be dishonest in the presence of non-monetary objects—such as pencils and tokens—than actual money. From all the research I have done over the years, the idea that worries me the most is that the more cashless our society becomes, the more our moral compass slips. If being just one step removed from money can increase cheating to such a degree, just imagine what can happen as we become an increasingly cashless society. Could it be that stealing a credit card number is much less difficult from a moral perspective than stealing cash from someone’s wallet? Of course, digital money (such as a debit or credit card) has many advantages, but it might also separate us from the reality of our actions to some degree. If being one step removed from money liberates people from their moral shackles, what will happen as more and more banking is done online?

The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has.—WILL ROGERS
  • Unlike other sports, golf has no referee, umpire, or panel of judges to make sure rules are followed or to make calls in questionable situations. The golfer, much like the businessperson, has to decide for him- or herself what is and is not acceptable. Golfers and businesspeople must choose for themselves what they are willing and not willing to do, since most of the time there is no one else to supervise or check their work.

We Lock Our Doors Against Our Friends, Not Enemies

  • In response to Peter’s amazement, the locksmith told Peter that locks are on doors only to keep honest people honest. “One percent of people will always be honest and never steal,” the locksmith said. “Another one percent will always be dishonest and always try to pick your lock and steal your television. And the rest will be honest as long as the conditions are right—but if they are tempted enough, they’ll be dishonest too. Locks won’t protect you from the thieves, who can get in your house if they really want to. They will only protect you from the mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock.” After reflecting on these observations, I came away thinking that the locksmith was probably right. It’s not that 98 percent of people are immoral or will cheat anytime the opportunity arises; it’s more likely that most of us need little reminders to keep ourselves on the right path.

  • Here’s what we found: when participants learned that both they and someone else would benefit from their dishonesty if they exaggerated their scores more, they ended up engaging in even higher levels of cheating, claiming to have solved three more matrices than when they were cheating just for themselves. This result suggests that we humans have a weakness for altruistic cheating, even if we barely know the person who might benefit from our misbehaviour. Sadly, it seems that even altruism can have a dark side.

On Ego Depletion

  • In a fascinating demonstration of the tension between reason and desire, Baba Shiv (a professor at Stanford University) and Sasha Fedorikhin (a professor at Indiana University) examined the idea that people fall into temptation more frequently when the part of their brain that is in charge of deliberative thinking is otherwise occupied.

  • Baba and Sasha’s experiment showed that when our deliberative reasoning ability is occupied, the impulsive system gains more control over our behavior. But the interplay between our ability to reason and our desires gets even more complicated when we think about what Roy Baumeister (a professor at Florida State University) coined “ego depletion.

  • The basic idea behind ego depletion is that resisting temptation takes considerable effort and energy. “This means that after a long day of saying “no” to various and sundry temptations, our capacity for resisting them diminishes—until at some point we surrender and end up with a belly full of cheese danish, Oreos, french fries, or whatever it is that makes us salivate. This, of course, is a worrisome thought. After all, our days are increasingly full of decisions, along with a never-ending barrage of temptations. If our repeated attempts to control ourselves deplete our ability to do so, is it any wonder that we so often fail? Ego depletion also helps explain why our evenings are particularly filled with failed attempts at self-control—after a long day of working hard to be good, we get tired of it all. And as night falls, we are particularly likely to succumb to our desires (think of late-night snacking as the culmination of a day’s worth of resisting temptation).

  • Being human and susceptible to temptation, we all suffer in this regard. When we make complex decisions throughout the day (and most decisions are more complex and taxing than naming the colours of mismatched words), we repeatedly find ourselves in circumstances that create a tug-of-war between impulse and reason. And when it comes to important decisions (health, marriage, and so on), we experience an even stronger struggle. Ironically, simple, everyday attempts to keep our impulses under control weaken our supply of self-control, thus making us more susceptible to temptation.

A Formula For Pure Fun

  • So here’s a tip: next time you really want to let it all hang out and indulge your primal self, try depleting yourself first by writing a long autobiographical essay without using the letters “a” and “n.” Then go to a mall, try on different things, but buy nothing. Afterward, with all of this depletion weighing on you, place yourself in the tempting situation of your choice and let ’er rip. Just don’t use this trick too often.

Grandmas, Deaths and Exams

  • After collecting data over several years, Mike Adams (a professor of biology at Eastern Connecticut State University) has shown that grandmothers are ten times more likely to die before a midterm and nineteen times more likely to die before a final exam. Moreover, grandmothers of students who aren’t doing so well in class are at even higher risk—students who are failing are fifty times more likely to lose a grandmother compared with non-failing students.

How To Steal Like An Artist

“Facts are for people who lack the imagination to create their own truth. —ANONYMOUS”
“Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” ”
  • We might say that higher brain connectivity could make it easier for any of us to lie and at the same time think of ourselves as honourable creatures. After all, more connected brains have more avenues to explore when it comes to interpreting and explaining dubious events—and perhaps this is a crucial element in the rationalisation of our dishonest acts.

  • These findings made me wonder whether increased white matter could be linked to both increased lying and increased creativity. After all, people who have more connections among their different brain parts and more associations are presumably also more creative.

  • Put simply, the link between creativity and dishonesty seems related to the ability to tell ourselves stories about how we are doing the right thing, even when we are not. The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.

  • Intelligence, however, wasn’t correlated to any degree with dishonesty. This means that those who cheated more on each of the three tasks (matrices, dots, and general knowledge) had on average higher creativity scores compared to noncheaters, but their intelligence scores were not very different. We also studied the scores of the extreme cheaters, the participants who cheated almost to the max. In each of our measures of creativity, they had higher scores than those who cheated to a lower degree. Once again, their intelligence scores were no different.

  • Just as creativity enables us to envision novel solutions to tough problems, it can also enable us to develop original paths around rules, all the while allowing us to reinterpret information in a self-serving way. Putting our creative minds to work can help us come up with a narrative that lets us have our cake and eat it too, and create stories in which we’re always the hero, never the villain. If the key to our dishonesty is our ability to think of ourselves as honest and moral people while at the same time benefitting from cheating, creativity can help us tell better stories—stories that allow us to be even more dishonest but still think of ourselves as wonderfully honest people.

  • Obviously, we should keep hiring creative people, we should still aspire to be creative ourselves, and we should continue to encourage creativity in others. But we also need to understand the links between creativity and dishonesty and try to restrict the cases in which creative people might be tempted to use their skills to find new ways to misbehave.