Are we inherently dishonest?

I like to think that I’m honest. Dan Ariely says I’m fooling myself.

I think social lies are necessary sometimes. One time I had a friend whose stylist accidentally overdid her haircut and got it down to only about an inch in length. She couldn’t fix it, she was freaked out, and she needed someone to reassure her that no, she didn’t look like a boy. To be honest, she kind of looked like a boy. But I figured it was best to discuss that at a later date after her hair had grown out a bit and she could get a better cut. I suppose this counts as dishonesty, but it’s not Commandment-breaking lying (giving false witness, i.e., falsely incriminating someone) so I give myself a pass.

Different honesty: do I steal? I don’t think so. If someone gives me too much change, I give it back. (This last happened two days ago.) At work I didn’t take home supplies from the office, and if I spent time goofing off I made up the hours on my own time. My parents drilled that type of honesty into me; they are both meticulously honest about work. This applies to unpaid work, as well. Much of the volunteer work I do is social by nature and requires chit-chat. But when it comes down to getting the actual work done, I do it. I made a commitment, and I will keep it.

What about cheating? Well …

I had a moment at paintball Saturday that I’m not particularly proud of. Dan says we feel better if we confess to our dishonesty. So here it is:

We were told at the beginning of the games that if we got nailed by a paintball and it left a splatter bigger than a quarter, we were out. In two different games I pulled myself out after getting hit, only to have the referee tell me that I should have stayed in because the splatter wasn’t adequate to qualify as a kill. Sometimes the paintballs just bounce off you, which, sadly, hurts a lot more than the ones that explode. When I felt a couple of them zing into my back, I made an assumption rather than getting a referee’s ruling.

In the second-to-last game I had a bead on a guy (he was a grownup, which I think matters in this story) who didn’t see me as he was hunkering down behind a low wall on his way to get my team’s flag. This was my first time paintballing, and I’m not terribly accurate. When I took a shot at him, I missed. He turned and got me with a barrage of shots, one of which nailed me in the head. And it freaking hurt.

I was out, and I went to the dead zone. But I was really annoyed because, like I said, that head shot hurt — and this dude was a pro with his own gear, so he obviously knew what he was doing. The next game, he and I got into a firefight. By then my accuracy was improved. I had a good volley, and maybe I hit him. He didn’t hit me. But he did get the barrel of my gun. I think. Hypothetically it could have been my own shot that splattered the barrel — the paint was my own color. But probably not.

By rule, I was out because splatter on guns counts as a hit. But the referee had just left my side of the field, and I didn’t have anyone to appeal to for a ruling or to protect me when I stood up to go to the dead zone. I was really, really tired at this point, and the effort required to stand up was more than I felt like making. Moreover, I knew by now that if I stood up, even to declare surrender, I’d get nailed a few more times before my “death” was apparent and made me immune from further shots. Besides, I rationalized, I’d pulled myself out of two games early already, and I really wanted to nail that SOB who got me in the head. And I might have already hit him (it was very close, and quite possible), and he was still playing.

So I stayed put and leveled another volley in his direction. I didn’t hit him. But it wasn’t honest to keep shooting.

Dan Ariely says that we rationalize our dishonesty all the time. (Note the excruciatingly detailed rationalization I just gave.) He says that the net impact of thousands of people committing small dishonesty is greater than the impact of the few who are hugely dishonest. I have my doubts about that; did the total amount of office supplies or petty cash or work hours stolen from Enron, for example, come anywhere close to the financial damage that Ken Lay, et al., caused when they cheated their employees and shareholders? No way. But Ariely means the global impact of dishonesty, not the localized dishonesty within a particular business. He may be right, although that’s no comfort to those whom Enron screwed over.

I do think that Ariely’s research is really interesting and has a ring of truth to it. Here’s another terrific video from RSA Animate, this time with Ariely discussing “The Truth About Dishonesty:

I don’t feel better after this confession, so take that for what it’s worth.

Categories: Brain Workouts

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3 replies

  1. Personally, I always thought that Hugh Laurie put it best in his role as Dr. Gregory House: “Everybody lies.”

    As for the conjecture of a lot of people with little lies doing more damage than a couple of people with big lies… That’s a tricky question. The answer I would give is that the lie that does the most damage is the largest lie that is tolerated without appreciable penalty, because it is this lie that determines the ‘norms’ by which the society will operate. A large lie that is appropriately punished happens once, maybe a couple of times, and is done. A smaller lie that is tolerated is observed and replicated.

  2. “Lie” has to be one of the worst-defined words of all times. There should be at least 20 to 30 different words for different lies. I hate to admit it, but using the generalized meaning of the word, I probably “lie” countless times a day. But that includes not saying what I’m really thinking when I’m angry or bitter or exhausted. There is a lot of pretending that makes the world a better place, and I’m actually fine with those types of lies. This could be a much, much longer response. But I’m working right now, and I’m feeling guilty about reading this blog instead of doing my job. :)

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