Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely - Review

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone---Especially Ourselves, by Dan Ariely

(AmazonKindle, Flipkart, Flipkart e-bookInfibeam, my user review on Amazon)
4 stars   This is a notable book I read and reviewed. Click to see more such books.

Dead grannies, failing exams; self-deception and its cousins, overconfidence and optimism.This third book from Dan Ariely, the previous two being Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, focuses on the specific area of measuring the extent of cheating under a variety of circumstances. Several experiments the author and others conducted are used to examine how much we cheat, and how that varies with the extent of monitoring, the money involved, and so on. In the end, this is a short, lightweight read on the topic. I would have liked some more academic heft to the book, but I liked the book for what it provided me.

As soon as the book is off the block, so to say, the author takes aim at the venerable Gary Becker, Nobel laureate, who gave us the modern economic notion of cheating by suggesting that "people commit crimes based on a rational analysis of the situation." "He also noted that in weighing the costs versus the benefits, there was no place for consideration of right or wrong; it was simply about the comparison of possible positive and negative outcomes." This came to be known as the "Simple Model of Rational Crime (SMORC)". And it this model that the author seeks to take a sledgehammer of research to. His and his colleagues' research was to try and find out whether this model actually held true under a variety of conditions.  A cursory look around, including the experience of Dan Weiss, who worked at the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., who found out that "We are going to take things from each other if we have a chance ... many people need controls around them for them to do the right thing." If one looks around in India, especially at the political, bureaucratic, and business class, one cannot but agree with this bleak assessment and with Becker's model of rational crime; lax controls and non-existent monitoring, a corrupt police, compromised investigations, a tardy judicial process, and a media in bed with the venal all mean that crime is a very low-risk profession in India today.

The basic test that was used is a paper test with twenty matrices, each matrix containing twelve numbers, with the task being to find "two numbers that added up to 10" in each matrix. This became the "matrix task". After each person completed the test, for which they were given five minutes, they were supposed to submit their sheets to the experimenter, who would count the number of correct answers and then hand out money based on the number of correct answers. Another setup, "called the shredder condition", was one in which the participants had the "opportunity to cheat." Here the participants had to count the number of correct answers, put their worksheet "through the shredder at the back of the room", come tell the experimenter how many matrices they solved correctly, and get paid accordingly. A third variant of this experiment was to plant a subject who would get up after just a minute or so after the test, proclaim loudly that he (or she) had got many more correct than was reasonably possible, and then see how people reacted. Since these tests were conducted on people on a random basis, and since it was possible to determine, on average, how many problems could people be expected to solve, without cheating, by varying the standard "matrix test" by adding conditions that made it easier and possible for people to cheat, it could be measured how much people cheated when given the opportunity and motive to do so.
"In the control condition, participants solved on average four out of the twenty matrices. Participants in the shredder condition claimed to have solved an average of six - two more than in the control condition."
Basically, it turns out that "we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals." How so? Imagine if you were attempting the matrix test along with twenty other people. After the allotted five minutes you had solved only four problems - a very average result, but nothing to scoff at either. But suppose now you were in the shredder version of the test. If you claimed you had solved all twenty matrices, it would be fairly obvious to everyone that you were a big freaking cheat. On the other hand, if you claimed to have solved six or seven or eight problems, you could not only impress others, but also tell yourself that that represented your true ability. After all, you had got distracted during the test, and that time lost therefore did not count. Or that the room was too hot, and that affected your ability to perform to the best of you ability. And so on...

Remember the age-old problem of gorging on junk food when you are tired? This is not a figment of your imagination; rather, psychologists have dubbed it "ego depletion". "The basic idea behind ego depletion is that resisting temptation takes considerable effort and energy." Which leads the author into a direction related to this book, "Might people who overtax themselves in one domain end up being less moral in others? Does depletion lead us to cheat?" Which is sort of related to the very sad problem of dead grannies. Huh? Grannies and students and exam deadlines? Yes! "... students who are failing are fifty times more likely to lose a grandmother compared with non-failing students."

A while back I had read a very engaging and eye-opening book, "Cheap", by Ellen Ruppel Shell (my review), that talked about the different ways in which the fixation on cost has impacted our lives. Dan Ariely's book brings a different perspective on this issue, of fakes. Fakes are a cheap imitation of the real thing, the operative words here being "cheap" and "fake". Lying is at work even here. "People who 'dressed above their station' were silently, but directly, lying to those around them." Fast-forward to some tests and it turns out, as you may have guessed somewhat but will also be surprised, "that wearing a genuine product does not increase our honesty (or at least not by much). But once we knowingly put on a counterfeit product, moral constraints loosen to some degree, making it easier to take further steps down the path of dishonesty."
"In the end, we concluded that counterfeit products not only tend to make us more dishonest; they also cause us to view others as less than honest."
So what is the way out? Obviously, monitoring can help, as the matrix tests clearly reveal. But pervasive monitoring has its own costs, prohibitive at times, clearly impractical at others, and which raises questions of privacy in society. However, a mirror can help. "It seems, then, that when we are made unambiguously aware of the ways we cheat, we become far less able to take unwarranted credit for our performance."

At the end of the day, or the book, whichever comes later, this is a fascinating book that takes a very close look at lying and self-deception. It is likely that several years of further research study is needed to uncover the causes of lying, a topic of much study over thousands of years already. What this book does seem to do is tell us that lying and cheating are not simply matters of straightforward amoral calculations based on costs and consequences of getting caught. And thereby lies the challenge.

Read about Gary Becker's work, Rational Theory of Crime on Wikipedia, and University of Chicago.

A great book and still a fascinating read on how we are influenced and how we seek to influence and persuade others continues to be Robert Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Kindle).
Other books on similar topics are Stumbling on Happiness (my review) and  Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (my review), by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. These books owe a lot to the fathers of modern behavioral economics, Dan Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky (Choices, Values, and Frames). Kahneman's latest book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kindle), continues to gather rave reviews while also managing to be a bestseller.

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.