Everybody Lies, And That's Not Always A Bad Thing

Mar 27, 2017
Originally published on March 27, 2017 6:00 pm

When we think about dishonesty, we mostly think about the big stuff.

We see big scandals, big lies, and we think to ourselves, I could never do that. We think we're fundamentally different from Bernie Madoff or Tiger Woods.

But behind big lies are a series of small deceptions. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, writes about this in his book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.

"One of the frightening conclusions we have is that what separates honest people from not-honest people is not necessarily character, it's opportunity," he said.

These small lies are quite common. When we lie, it's not always a conscious or rational choice. We want to lie and we want to benefit from our lying, but we want to be able to look in the mirror and see ourselves as good, honest people. We might go a little too fast on the highway, or pocket extra change at a gas station, but we're still mostly honest... right?

That's why Ariely describes honesty as something of a state of mind. He thinks the IRS should have people sign a pledge committing to be honest when they start working on their taxes, not when they're done. Setting the stage for honesty is more effective than asking someone after the fact whether or not they lied.

Ariely says the research about honesty isn't all negative. We have plenty of opportunities to lie, cheat, and steal, without getting caught. And we usually don't take those opportunities.

"There's a lot of good in us," he said. "In fact, the surprising thing for a rational economist would be: why don't we cheat more?"

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

For more research by Dan Ariely, check out his website where you can see all the work he's done about honesty and dishonesty.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When we think about dishonesty, we mostly think about the big stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman.

LANCE ARMSTRONG: I've said it for longer than seven years. I have never doped.

ANTHONY WEINER: The answer is I did not send that tweet. My system was hacked. I was pranked. It was a fairly common one. People make fun of my name all the time. When you're named Weiner, you kind of get that.

SCOTT LONDON: He goes, hey, I know way that we can both make a little bit of money. You give me information. I'm going to trade on it. We'll split it three ways.

VEDANTAM: This kind of dishonesty seems so blatant, so wrong.

DAN ARIELY: And you say to yourself, wow, I could have never done this. Like, this is a different kind of a person. That's not me. I can't possibly be like that person.

VEDANTAM: This is Dan Ariely, researcher and author of the book, "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone - Especially Ourselves." Dan says the truth about dishonesty might surprise you.

ARIELY: What separates honest people from not honest people is not necessarily character. It's opportunity.

VEDANTAM: We'll also talk about Dan's personal life and what a life-threatening injury taught him about deception and self-deception.

ARIELY: It's kind of embarrassing. Do we have to - do we have to talk about that? Can we talk about something else?

VEDANTAM: Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. Dan, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

ARIELY: My pleasure, so nice to be here.

VEDANTAM: Dan, with many Americans thinking about their taxes right now, I want to start with a counter-intuitive question. Why don't more people cheat on their taxes? Most of us know the IRS is overwhelmed and overstretched. So rationally, more people ought to get away with cheating than actually do.

ARIELY: Well, first of all, just by saying it, maybe you've increased the proportion of people who'll cheat this year.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

ARIELY: So maybe you're contributing to the issue. But the truth is that you're absolutely right. When we look at this honesty, we often look at the half-empty part of the glass. And we look at all the things that people do badly. But the reality is that we are really quite wonderful. We don't have to go all the way to taxes. We can think about all kinds of other cases.

So in the last few years, almost every time I go to a restaurant, I ask the waiter if there's a way to eat and escape without paying. And, you know, sometimes I get strange looks. Sometimes they ask me for my credit card. But they always give me good advice. They say things like, wait for a big party to come. Go to the bathroom. There's an alley. I mean, they have suggestions of how to escape without paying. And then I ask them, how often does it happen? And they say, very rarely. And in fact, they say sometimes, people leave the restaurant without paying because, you know, we forget whether we've paid or not paid. We don't pay attention. And people call back and pay over the phone. So there's a lot of goodness in us.

And in fact, the surprising thing for a rational economist would be, why don't people steal more, right? Why don't we take advantage? So we do have some internal moral conscience. We have internalized the values of society. And we don't need anybody around us. We don't need prison sentences. We don't need to be afraid. We make our own judgment of what's right and wrong. And we adhere to those decisions - not perfectly, but to a very large degree.

VEDANTAM: One of the things that I find interesting about what you're saying is that in some ways, people are often unthinkingly honest. In other words, they're not actually asking themselves, what room do I have to be dishonest? They're actually honest just because it's a rule that they're following. And of course, much of your work has focused on the flip side of that, which is that people are also unthinkingly dishonest. It's not just people who are trying to be dishonest, but people who are making small lapses, small slips without really thinking about it very clearly.

ARIELY: That's exactly right. And you know, when we think about dishonesty, we often think about kind of big cases of people who've, you know, done terrible things. And in the research on this honesty, we've done lots of lab experiments. But we've also interviewed 40 big cheaters. But what was so interesting about these discussions is without exception, all of them, when you talk to these people and you - and you try to figure out, how did they get to where they got - and you say to yourself, wow, I could have never done this. Like, this is a different kind of a person. That's not me. I can't possibly be like that person. But when instead you ask these people to tell you what was their first step, what was the first thing they did, you can say to yourself, I could have done that. I could have seen myself in that - in that case.

And I can give you one example. One of the guys we talked to, his name is Joe Papp. And Joe was a cyclist. He loved cycling. He loved nothing else in the world but cycling. He was in the Olympic team, the American Olympic team. And then at some point, he went back to school to finish his degree. After a few years, went back to cycling, he goes in this race. But he feels that everybody else is slightly faster. And he's incredibly frustrated, and he cries that night. And one of his friends says, here's a name for a doctor. He goes to see this doctor - white coat and the stethoscope. And the doctor prescribes to him EPO. EPO is a drug that people use for cancer that increases the production of red blood cells, really good thing if you need energy, right? It means oxygen, basically. He goes to the pharmacy. He gives him the prescription. His insurance company pays for it. He pays the deductible. He takes it to his apartment. He gives himself the first injection - then, the next day, the next injection and so on. Eventually, it's a habit.

Then he moves to another team. He finds out that everybody else is doing it. They do it more publicly. Anyway, things continue. Then there's a shortage of EPO. But he has a friend that has connection in China, on the Chinese team. And he puts him in touch with a Chinese factory who produces EPO. He imports EPO for himself. Then his friends find out about it and ask him to import for them as well. So he imports for them as well. Eventually, he's a drug dealer. Now, if you just look at Joe Papp and you say, could I ever become a drug dealer who imports EPO, you would say no. But when you look at the first step, you would ask yourself, where exactly would we stop?

Imagine yourself in his shoes. Like, it's the first day. You just came back to cycling. You do just as well as you thought you could. Everybody's faster. Don't you cry? Of course you do. A friend gives you an address for a physician. Don't you go? Of course you do. The physician gives you a prescription. Don't you go to fill it? Of course you do. You get the prescription. You have all these injections. Don't you try once? Of course you do. I mean, when exactly would we stop? And one of the frightening conclusions we have is that what separates honest people from not honest people is not necessarily character. It's opportunity, right? And if we were all in Joe's shoes, maybe we would have all been like this, exactly like that.

VEDANTAM: One of the things that caught my eye recently, Dan, is that you had a paper that actually explores this very idea from the point of view of science. And this study remarkably was actually looking at how the brain operates as people were making these little deceptions.

ARIELY: Yeah. So the brain is really a mechanism for detecting surprising things, right? The brain is basically working on adaptation. You get to a certain level of light. In the beginning, it's surprising. And then you get used to that environment. And - and this is true across lots of things that the brain does. It turns out that the brain also reacts very strongly to a first act of lying. But then, as we keep on lying more and more, the brain kind of stop reacting to it. So we start by being aware of this maybe being a dishonest act. And we're at least aware of it. But over time, it just goes into the background. And we don't pay attention to it.

VEDANTAM: You've made the case in several books and articles that lying and deception is not usually about, you know, a rational cost-benefit equation where people are balancing the advantages of deception against the risk of getting caught but about something that you call the fudge factor. What's the fudge factor?

ARIELY: Yeah. So the cost-benefit analysis, by the way, is the - kind of the standard framework in economics, right? You say to yourself, how likely am I to get caught? What will happen to me? What can I get away with? How much can I steal? And you basically do a cost-benefit analysis. We find that those things don't really matter. What we find that matters is this intricate balance between wanting to get a bit more, selfishly wanting a bit more right now - I wish I had a bit more money; I wish I had, you know, more prestige, whatever it is - and on the other hand wanting to look at ourself in the mirror and feel that we're good, honest people. We can cheat a little bit and still feel good about ourself.

So for example, if you're on a 65-mile-an-hour road, if you're at 68, you don't think you're speeding. So we have this ability to rationalize our actions and to basically say, yes, you know, under FBI interrogation, I would realize this is not the perfect truth. But it's OK. There still are reasons for it. I can still rationalize it. I can still explain what it is, especially when we don't think about it too carefully.

VEDANTAM: Let's talk a little bit about solutions. You think that one of the things that the IRS should ask taxpayers to do is to fill out a testimonial that says, I declare that everything I say here will be the truth, only the truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God. Why do you think personal testimonials might be useful when people are filling out their tax returns?

ARIELY: Yeah. So first of all, we have data. I'll tell you about it in a second. But think about our oral tradition. When people go to court, we swear in the beginning, right? And we swear in the beginning not because we think we know already everything we've said, but we swear in the beginning because we understand, as a society, as an institution, that honesty is about the mindset. And you basically say, I swear I'll say the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And you put yourself into that state of being honest from now on.

Now, what happened over the years, lawyers got into things. And instead of using the oral tradition, we sign at the end, right? Every document, you sign at the end, not in the beginning. So all of a sudden, it's not about your mindset going in. It's about verification of the fact afterward. But you know what? When you get to the end, lying is over. It's done. Like, imagine that you would testify in court, and you wouldn't swear in the beginning. You would swear at the end. What, you would say, oh, sorry, sorry, let me go back to the third thing I said. Let me change my opinion.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

ARIELY: So what happened is that the legal tradition has kind of taken something that we all intuit quite basically, that honesty is about the mindset, and change it to verification. So that was the initial intuition for this. And we've done quite a few experiments. In one of them, we did it with a big insurance company. This was an insurance company that sends people letters. And it asked them, how many miles did you drive last year? And if you drove more, you pay a higher premium. You drove less; you pay a lower premium.

And people, of course, have the incentive to declare that they drove less because then, they would pay less. And they had the regular form, which you fill the numbers in and you sign at the bottom of the form. And we created a new version of the form in which people sign in the beginning. And what we saw was that people drove more by 15 percent in the condition when they signed upfront.

VEDANTAM: Wow.

ARIELY: And by the way, we've replicated it in all kinds of ways, including with the procurement officers within the U.S. government, including with taxes in a country in South America and including with a traveler insurance in Northern Europe. And in all of those cases, you get people to sign something. They get into kind of a different mental state. They remember honesty. We kind of guard ourselves against being dishonest. And then - and then people fill things in a more honest way - we're not sure perfectly honest, but more honest way.

And by the way, we started by looking at the glass-half-full part of it. This is a tremendously glass-half-full story because it says we have the desire to be honest. Something about the education process gets people to want to be honest. We just need to remind people that they want to be honest, and then it works.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, I'm going to ask Dan about the virtues of deception and self-deception - our case study, Dan Ariely. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When Dan Ariely was 17 years old, he was at a graduation ceremony. Flares were being sent up to celebrate, and one went off too close to him. Seventy percent of his body was burned, and he spent the next three years in a hospital. This story is hard to listen to, but Dan's injuries and the experiences he had with doctors and nurses reveal a lot about human behavior. And they changed the way Dan came to think about deception and self-deception.

ARIELY: It turns out that severe burns that cover all of your body don't - don't go away. I didn't know it at that time, but, you know, I'm more than 30 years later now, and my last surgery was last year. It's a gift that keeps on giving. It's a very, very difficult injury, a lot of pain in the beginning, very hard to recover. And then it keeps on - I mean, the challenges are just ongoing.

VEDANTAM: So you get to the hospital. You're spending many weeks in the hospital. You're obviously in great pain. Various operations and procedures are being performed on you. Did doctors share with you how badly off you were?

ARIELY: No. So first of all, you know, I was in the hospital for almost three years in total. In the beginning, you know, of course, all burn patients above 30 percent are kind of a risk of losing their lives. And nobody told me - nobody told me that. I actually don't think anybody really told me exactly what to expect. But no, I didn't know how long it will be. I didn't know how painful it will be. I didn't understand what burns are. Nobody actually gave me this, you know, really sad view of how the future will evolve from the perspective of the burns.

VEDANTAM: Now, as somebody who studies dishonesty and deception and who has made a very strong case against deception, you found yourself paradoxically looking back in hindsight thinking that maybe the doctors did the right thing, that maybe they did the right thing by deceiving you. And maybe you helped in that deception with a certain amount of self-deception as well.

ARIELY: Yeah, and you know, like everybody who gets injured in a deep way, you know, I also contemplated terminating my life. I didn't have much power to do it, but I certainly thought about - thought about that. And I think that if I had, at that time, a more objective view of what the future would hold, I - I might've tried to do that. So you know, that's kind of on a big philosophical kind of meaning-of-life kind of part. But it also shows up in smaller ways.

So I remember one surgery. So this was a surgery to my right hand. And after the surgery, they couldn't put casts on my hand, of course, because it was the skin. You can't put casts on the skin. So instead, what they do is they put these metal nails through the bone to hold the fingers. So I had kind of two nails coming from the side of my thumb and a nail coming in each - in each finger throughout the whole finger and, you know, kind of basically lots of needles poking out. And by the way, at the end of them they would put something so I wouldn't poke myself at night if I, by mistake, got my hand too close to my face.

And the surgery was done. And six weeks later, they were going to take off these nails. And I asked the nurse, when are they going to schedule the operating room to take these out? And she said, oh, you know, don't worry about it. We're going to just take it out in the - in the department. And I said, don't - don't you have to put me to sleep for this? And she said, no, no, no, it doesn't hurt at all. And it turns out, it really hurts (laughter). Now, it wasn't probably as bad as putting the nails in. But it was - it was painful. And it took - and it took awhile to take these - I don't know - 15 nails or so. But think about the three weeks that I would have had agony - right? - of being afraid. This way, I had the same pain but without the dread that came up with it.

Now, do I justify lying? It's very tough. But do I recognize that it contributed to my well-being and that I would have had three weeks of - you know, I was terrified as it is. You know, when you're - when you're a patient, your lack of control and fear is just incredible. You're just lying in bed, and other people decide what to do with you, when to do with you. The helplessness is tremendous. And being - having the fear of people pulling these nails out of me in - without anesthesia and being painful, probably would have been very, very difficult to take at the time, adding to that. So - so I am grateful. I am grateful. I still think it's a questionable decision, but I am grateful.

VEDANTAM: I believe that at another time, a nurse introduced you to another burn victim who had survived. And she meant for this to be encouraging, but in some ways, it had the opposite effect on you.

ARIELY: Yeah. This was maybe two or three months after my initial injury. And at that point, I could see. And I could talk a little bit and so on. And they brought somebody who got - who got injured. And you know, because I had no view of what my future would look like, I kind of imagined myself basically going back to regular life. I didn't understand everything that was happening. And when they brought this old patient to come, he was supposed to symbol, you know, recovery. He was - I don't know - 15 years after his injury. He was supposed to symbolize somebody who's, you know, made it. And he - he looked terrible, with very severe burns. It was clear he didn't have function of his hands - you know, everything I have now - right? So they were correct.

But at that point, it was a shock to realize that this was the future that they were, like, optimistically, I could hope for. And I was hoping for a much more optimistic future than that. Like, my own optimism was much higher than that reality. So even though they brought that patient to show me how life could turn out well, for me, it was just a shock to the system.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering whether this experience helped shape the way you think about self-deception. You know, self-deception has been widely criticized. And obviously it has many consequences, adverse consequences, when we lie to ourselves. But many people have also made the case that if we don't lie to ourselves ever, life becomes often unbearably difficult - and not just when you're, you know, suffering from serious burns, but in all kinds of different ways. We need to deceive ourselves to get through our day. What do you make of that argument?

ARIELY: Look, there's no question that there's some truth to that argument. The question is, how much of it, you know, which is true for all - all questions about this honesty, right? It's true that dishonesty is corrosive and destructive and terrible for society and so on. It's also true that we don't want to eliminate it completely. And the real question is dosage and under what conditions. And I can tell you that sometimes I think about my experience in the hospital - not just with deception, but with pain and with medications and with placebo and with lack of control and so on - as kind of a magnifying glass on all kinds of things in life, and including in deception. And I - I don't think I could have taken the physicians telling me exactly - exactly the truth.

And a couple of years ago, I was - I was asked to help a young guy who was burned. And a relative of his asked me to send this kid an optimistic note about his future. And it was a tremendous torture for me because on one hand, I didn't think his future was going to be very optimistic. On the other hand, I didn't - I didn't think it would be right to expose him to the full brutality of the many years that are going to be ahead of him. I debated for - for about two days while crying quite a lot about, like, what to tell him and what not to tell him. And I kind of brought myself back to what I wanted to know and not know. And eventually I found some kind of compromise that I was OK with. But it was certainly not the brutal truth straight up.

VEDANTAM: I want to wrap up with a story that moves us forward by several years because I feel like this is a wonderful story that reveals so many different aspects about human nature, the nature of deception, the nature of self-deception, the complexity of human behavior. You were once at an airport confronting a very long line at check-in. Do you remember the story of what happened next?

ARIELY: (Laughter) I remember. It's kind of embarrassing. Do we have to - do we have to talk about that? Can we talk about something else?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) As your own research has shown, Dan, thinking about stuff that's embarrassing can be very revealing.

ARIELY: It is revealing, yes. (Laughter). So OK, we'll see where you go with this. You know, I have an injury. But I can - I'm not that injured. Huge line, and I'm there with a friend. And I ask him to go and get me a wheelchair. And, you know, I have a hard time standing for a long time. But I don't need a wheelchair. And he got me a wheelchair. And we checked in very quickly. And we cheated. I mean, I - we cheated. I cheated, got quickly in front of the line. But the second part of that story was that - so now I'm in this wheelchair, waiting for the - for the flight. And I try to go to the bathroom. And of course, I try to go to the bathroom with the wheelchair. And the bathroom is just not designed for anybody with a wheelchair. And I get really upset. I get really upset that the bathroom is not designed for people in a wheelchair.

But then it became worse because then he takes me, with the wheelchair, to the plane. And it turns out I'm in seat - I don't know - 37D or something. And now how do I get to the seat? The wheelchair that they gave me was too - was too wide for the seat. We couldn't go through it. So he now carries me on his back to seat 37D, which was fine. But this was a flight from New York to London. And now how do I get to the bathroom? So it's kind of clear to me that I need to stay - to stay in character. And I basically don't drink. And I don't go to the bathroom. He carries me on his back as we land in London.

And then I decide to go and complain to the people from Air India about how they're not treating people with disabilities. And you know what? I had in me the frustration of somebody who was actually in a wheelchair. I truly went into character. Maybe I should have been an actor. I truly went into character, and I truly felt the humiliation of somebody who actually needs a wheelchair and the airline is just not doing the right - the right thing. So you know, this was, like, unbelievable ability to pretend I was something that I am not and very quickly get into the character and truly get upset - get upset over this.

Now, just to say something in my own favor, in my own defense, if I may, Your Honor - I know you're judging me now. It's - I think - I think if I was not injured at all, it would have been tough for me to just make up something completely. But the fact that, you know, I kind of have some difficult standing, I have lots of burns on my legs - not that I deserve - I should need a wheelchair, but it was kind of an easier jump. And I think this is kind of the thing with the slippery slope that we see and this ability to justify our behavior in all kinds of creative ways.

By the way, I should say one more thing. We find that when we look at personality tests of who cheats more, we thought maybe people who take more risk - maybe risk-takers cheat more. No. Maybe intelligent people. No. Creative people cheat more. And why do creative people cheat more? Because cheating is all about being able to tell a story about why what we want is actually OK. And sadly, I think I'm creative.

VEDANTAM: Dan Ariely, I want to thank you for joining me on HIDDEN BRAIN today.

ARIELY: It was a pleasure, even though you made me relive some - a little bit humiliating moments. But I thank you for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Maggie Penman and edited by Tara Boyle. Our staff includes Jenny Schmidt, Renee Klahr, Rhaina Cohen and Chloe Connelly. This week we're giving a shout-out to two unsung heroes, our colleagues Patrick Cooper (ph) and Dan Newman (ph). Dan and Patrick work on digital media here at NPR. And they've brought creativity, coding skills and patience to our new study guides project. Thank you, Dan and Patrick, for all your hard work. We can honestly say we couldn't have gotten this one off the ground without the two of you. Again, if you're an educator at the middle school, high school or college level, please check out the guides. Just hit the education tab at npr.org/hiddenbrain.

For more HIDDEN BRAIN, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and listen for my stories on your local public radio station. If you like this episode, please tell one friend about our show. We're always looking for new people to discover HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.