Most of us think of ourselves as honest, but, in fact, we all cheat. In his new book The Honest Truth of (Dis)Honesty, Dan Ariely demonstrates why and under what conditions we are likely to cheat, and how unethical behavior affects all of us.
1. According to your book we all lie and cheat, but at the same time we want to keep our self-image of integrity. How do we cope with this?
“People try to balance two goals: on one hand we want to view ourselves as wonderful, honest and moral, and on the other hand we want to benefit from being dishonest. We are able to do both, because of our flexible psychology; we have what we call the capacity to rationalize. This allows us to both cheat and perceive ourselves as honest individuals at the same time. However, rationalization has limits, so we can’t rationalize everything. But by cheating just a little bit we can easily benefit from dishonesty, without our self-image is being threatened.”
2.Generally, we assume that cheating, like most other decisions, is based on a rational cost-benefit analysis. But you argue that it’s actually the irrational forces that we don’t take into account that often determine whether we behave ethically or not. Which conditions make us more likely to cheat?
“If you think about cheating in terms of cost-benefit analysis the answer is very simple. The more you stand to gain with cheating, the more you will cheat. If you stand to gain less or you expect to get punished when you cheat, you will cheat less. The non-rational forces that influence decisions, however, have to do with our ability to justify and rationalize our behavior. So from that perspective, it’s not just the expectancy of what we stand to gain that determines if we cheat; it’s about the presence of irrational forces that make us more able to rationalize our dishonest behavior. For example, we feel more comfortable to cheat when others can also benefit from it.”
3. According to research, creativity and dishonesty go hand in hand. How can you explain this?
“Rationalizing our behavior is all about telling stories to explain ourselves that what we are doing is OK. Creativity facilitates this mechanism of rationalization. It helps people to rationalize on a higher level. Therefore, creative people are more likely to cheat, because they are better in telling stories that justify their dishonest behavior.”
4. The year 2011 has had a remarkable series of cases of scientific fraud. Perhaps you have heard about the case of Dutch professor Diederik Stapel, who lost his job as Professor of Social Psychology and dean at the University of Tilburg, when it became clear that he had made up data on a large scale. What do you think can be done to avoid similar instances of scientific dishonesty occurring in the future?
“Dishonesty is omnipresent – it’s not just a problem within the science community. The problem is that wherever and whenever there is flexibility in our rules and regulation, and we have an incentive to see reality in a biased way, we will act upon it. I believe the solution would be to create a very strong professional code of ethics, so it is crystal clear what is right and what is wrong.”
“Diederik Stapel behaved very badly, but I doubt if he started out that way. I often recognize a common pattern in criminals. People do a bad thing, only once, not thinking about the consequences. But after that, things become progressively worse. I think that this case is similar. It may have started with something small that led him to a step in the wrong direction. A step small enough for him to be able to rationalize and justify it to himself. But after he took this one step, he slid down a slippery slope that led to a wrong direction.”
“For me the lesson is that we all have the capacity within us to act in a dishonest way. So it’s not going to help to point to others and say “Oh it’s those bad people who are doing it.” That way were are unable to create the necessary fences that will protect us against behaving dishonestly. Instead, we need to understand the mechanism that causes dishonesty in all of us, rather than just point to individual cheaters.”
Dan Ariely is the James B Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. Dan publishes widely in the leading scholarly journals in economics, psychology, and business. His work has been featured in a variety of media including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Business 2.0, Scientific American, Science and CNN.