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Book Review: The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty by Dan Ariely

I “cheat” on crosswords. I don’t cheat, exactly. I don’t look at the answer key; THAT would be Cheating, with a capital C. Instead, I cheat with a lower case c; I Google or Wiki the subject of the difficult clues online. This only works for clues with keywords like an author’s name or a movie title, but the answers I find give me enough forward motion to continue solving the puzzle. If I get stumped again, I scan the clues for more keywords.

I don’t consider this letter-of-the-law Cheating, because I am working to find the solutions instead of just getting them from the answer key. You may be a crossword purist who is appalled at my lack of morals. You’d be making a mistake, though, to think my morals (when it comes to crosswords) are based on the same assumptions you hold.

It all comes down to why I do crossword puzzles in the first place. You, M. Purist, may crave the challenge and the self-esteem boost when successfully completing a NYT Friday entry. I, on the other hand, find it relaxing to lazily Internet-search trivia and methodically fill in the tiny squares with the gems I find, while learning a bit in the process.

Am I cheating myself? I don’t think so. After all, I’m learning things and relaxing. I’m not entering any crossword competitions. I’m not even going for bragging rights. For me, crosswords are a rote exercise. My methods work for me. In fact, M. Purist, I think your snobby morality about how crosswords should be done is elitist and exclusionary. Upon hearing my theories, one crossword-abandoning friend of mine lit up with discovery. She had stopped doing the puzzles because their difficulty proved insurmountable, but when we talked she realized she’d been cheating herself out of a fun pasttime because of her overblown sense of “what’s right”  in crossworddom.  Call us cheater-mcgeeters if you must, but my friend and I are happily googling away our grids.

Duke researcher and EBE (Economic Behaviorist Extraordinaire) Dan Ariely may side with the crossword purists on this one. In his latest book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves (THTAD), Dr. Ariely cites his own research and research of close colleagues on the subject of cheating. From 
“Fun with Fudging” and the “What the Hell Factor,” Ariely examines many different ways we cheat consciously and unconsciously. His clever experiments are great at catching unwitting people at the pervasive self-deception that none of us seem to be able to resist.

The book is probably his toughest read yet. I found Predictably Irrational to be a fun and delightful read. The Upside of Irrationality was a tiny bit more challenging. THTAD is by far the most research and dilemma-heavy of the 3. Perhaps it is the subject matter and being faced with my own shortcomings, but it seems this book had the least amount of engaging anecdotal evidence of Ariely’s signature storytelling charm. While reading THTAD, many times I found myself fading, in that reading-college-textbooks-at-midnight way. I don’t recall this feeling with the other two books.

My meandering could be the disgust factor at work. Ariely mentions Enron and Bernie Madoff, as well as Wall Street and the 2008 crash, then goes on to explain how cheating can be social and become contagious. It’s hardly light fare, despite Ariely’s attempts to soften the blow with his self-deprecating and at times mischievous humor.

Nonetheless, I read the book carefully in its entirety, even though I’d have to backtrack often to where my mind checked out and begin again; Ariely’s insights into human behavior are useful in life and in business. In this book, I learned why I shouldn’t trust the car repair guy I’ve known forever, why I should draw pictures of eyes and hang them on the snack cabinet, why a stack of dollar bills are more likely to stay in tact than my lunch in the work fridge, and why, as a creative person, I may have less gray matter in my brain than you dull types out there.

Where the book falls short, besides the lack of Ariely’s personal stories, is in the area of some needed philosophical talk about morals. Ariely hints at the possibility of varying moral codes when he talks briefly about the perception of cheating in different cultures, but he fails to lay down a common compass from which we all discern our moral directions. Ariely assumes we’re all following a letter-of-the-law approach to Cheating, and that his experiments’ subjects could only be following that same (supposedly Judeo-Christian) approach. But I think Ariely would’ve done well to take a paragraph or two to lay out his assumptions/biases. We can surely infer the basic Western moral sense, but if Ariely took some time to lay out what exactly he thinks is the official definition of “Cheating”, even if only within the confines of his own experiments, his assertions about how we all unconsciously cheat would hold all the more punch. Although his matrices experiment designs seem pretty rock solid, there is a possibility that Ariely may have missed two totally different motivations behind cheating: etiquette and convenience.

In Chapter 9: Collaborative Cheating: Why Two Heads Aren’t Necessarily Better than One, Dr. Ariely presents some findings that suggest we cheat more with others and/or for others’ benefit (“altruistic cheating”). Earlier in the book, he also cites “karma” as a way we justify taking a few extra pens from work when they failed to give us our yearly bonus. But I think this is where Ariely missed an opportunity to explore the finer-tuned aspect of cultural etiquette and convenience. Sometimes certain behaviors are expected for reasons unknown to us, but we’re savvy enough to pick up on signals sent by those around us. For example, in Ariely’s bad-actor experiment (the actor David portrayed “bad” decisions, not that David was poorly skilled at theatrical arts). When David asked whether or not he should cheat, the researcher said, “You can do what you want.” David then obviously cheated and was not rebuked. This is such an odd occurrence in life, it’s possible that the real subjects in the experiment may have surmised that the researcher actually preferred (for whatever mysterious reason) that the subjects cheated. Perhaps it would get her the results she wanted. Who would deny her? It would be more polite, then, to do what is expected and cheat like David (or find a moral middle ground and cheat a little more than normal, which is what the subjects did).

Another experiment Ariely cited was done in a coffee shop. Customers were handed too much change, and Ariely wanted to see how many people would return the excess, and how much of it they’d return. I’m deeply familiar with this very scenario, because I’ve experienced it more than once with my fanatically scrupulous father, who has been known to get into restaurant-silencing arguments over bills for being undercharged. Those cringe-worthy moments of my youth taught me that it’s better etiquette to leave a heftier tip in case the waitstaff notices the error later than to argue that we need to pay more. Perhaps Ariely would just call this “picking-up-on-signals” the collaborative effect, but I find it slightly different than what he describes as “group cheating” in the book.

I run into a collaborative effect everyday here in the suburbs, but again, it isn’t group cheating as much as it is a cultural norm. Take the library loans of music, for example. I am under the impression that if I check out Nicki Minaj’s lastest CD, I am to listen to it but not download it. If I download it to be able to listen to it, I should delete the album when I return the CD to the library. My father and my brother (also a stickler) would delete the files. They would also argue (probably loudly) with people on the street about how everyone should delete any music not bought through legitimate outlets. But if word got out around my town that I was making my tween delete the music she borrowed from the library, I’d get the reputation of an overly strict, trifling and somewhat-crazy parent. Put simply, it would be just plain weird.

Another example of this peer-pressure-to-accept-certain-rules is living in an organized-crime dominant area, which I did growing up. I dare not talk about it too much (for obvious reasons), but I will say that our views on the definitions of “crime” and “wrong” didn’t necessarily match up to say, a nice Midwestern Mayberry-type town’s views. We thought of ourselves as looking more at the big picture: The police? They weren’t the most “upstanding” group. Electronics companies? What, the ones with the child labor in Indonesia? Bankers? Don’t get me started! We were keeping a whole region of the state, thousands of families, afloat, mostly via legitimate means. What were all those people doing for anybody? Who wants a stickler around, anyway? Rule-followers, pencil-pushers, Miss Manners, they only see right in front of their own noses. Where I come from that’s a very immature (and definitely no-fun!) way to be.

Ariely does mention the social aspect behind cheating, as I said. And I may just be lying to myself, as he would say. But I do believe there are subtle signals we send to each other that tell us how we are expected to behave, and I wonder if any of those signals came into play in Ariely’s experiments. This isn’t the strongest of criticisms, of course. It’s a trifling point, a fixation on minutiae, a party-pooper whine. But I guess, like my father, I’m set to be the one that messes up everyone’s good time.

Tomorrow I’ll be sitting in on a conference with Dan Ariely. I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions for him.

Any thoughts? Have you read the book? What did you think?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • George Anders 24 August 2012, 10:38 am

    Nice review!

    You’re totally right about the importance of social context. I got in a weird conversation this summer with a couple from Baltimore who’d spent close to a decade living in Moscow. They came back with a belief that digital piracy is OK and maybe even virtuous in certain circumstances. I think they picked it up dealing with Russian censorship and having to work around it. It’s not like we never end up with non-DRM content ourselves. But we don’t do it a lot and we always feel slightly squeamish about it. Not them!

    • PurpleCar 25 August 2012, 1:58 pm

      That’s interesting. I’ve heard the DRM-violation-as-freedom argument before but it smacked of First World Problem/excuses. This context lends it credence.
      As far as a critique of Ariely’s work, I must admit it’s a bit on the lame side. I’m not sure if he could design out all social context influences. He can’t simply give up investigating these issues because he is laden with the burden of social context. Still, I’d like to see some repeats, some broad, consistent results before I inculcate these ideas into my world view or my business consulting.

      Christine Cavalier