If you thought one bad apple spoilt the bunch, listen to what Dan Ariely says. “Society’s troubles aren’t caused by the really bad apples, they’re caused by scores of slightly rotting apples.” If you thought companies offered incentives and bonuses to increase employee productivity, Ariely will disabuse you of the notion. “Big-buck bonuses actually lead to steep decline in executives’ performance,” he wrote in one of his books.
When it’s about establishing a point through anecdotes, trust Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, to challenge, and upset in the process, even the most established of notions.
The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty is the third book by the bestselling author — after Predictably Rational and The Upside of Irrationality — that employs a street smart approach, a light conversational tone and bits of routine life to etch out the complexities of human behaviour. He also uses some of the basic principles of economics — and life — to show how we think, act and try to justify our actions to ourselves, even as self-consciousness and righteousness simultaneously keep playing at the back of our minds.
Through his experiments with people, Ariely has tried to bring out the fact that cheating, lying and being dishonest are common all-pervasive phenomena that are naturally present in every individual, only the extent and nature may differ from person to person.
From the Enron scandal of 2001 and its collapse to the more recent Ponzi scheme fraud masterminded by Bernard Madoff, Ariely has in his quiver anecdotes from a wide range of issues that have an immediate connect with his readers; and, he generously fires them. He cites the case of his friend John Barlow, for example, who had been a consultant for Enron at the time of its collapse. He says it was possible that everyone involved with the firm, including his friend, was “deeply corrupt”, but also goes on to explore in this example the possibility of a different kind of dishonesty — one of wishful blindness, which, he says, is practised by everyone.
Ariely explains that people don’t always compare the price they might have to pay if they are caught and the benefits they might reap if they get away, when thinking of committing a crime. He talks of the “rational cost-benefit forces that are presumed to drive dishonest behaviour but often do not, and the irrational forces that we think don’t matter but often do.”
As he unravels the real “forces that spur us to cheat”, Ariely highlights it’s not cheating itself, but being able to justify and still see oneself as good that makes one cheat. People weigh their dishonesty by its magnitude; they still see themselves as honest if they cheat only a little bit. In fact, he proves through some of his experiments that the overall damage caused by a few big cheats is actually much less than that caused by several small ones.
In another example, the book shows that if some cans of soda and a few dollar bills were left unattended in a dormitory, the chances of cans going missing were higher, because stealing money might be more difficult to justify than making the excuse of feeling thirsty to justify stealing the cans of soft drinks.
Taking it forward from an individual’s need to feel good about himself, Ariely’s book also tries to establish that his comfort and the probability of cheating increases if he is one step removed from real money. In a comment on the so-called cashless economy — where e-wallets, stock options and credit/debit cards are easier, faster and more common ways of transaction — Ariely shows that these deals, since these are not in physical money and the people concerned are relatively relieved of moral shackles, entail greater threat of frauds.
The author’s advocacy of irrationality notwithstanding, the book’s flow from one part to the other is smooth and rational, and writing style lucid. Instances and anecdotes from the author’s own life and experiences, with a touch of humour, make it a good read.
THE (HONEST) TRUTH ABOUT DISHONESTY
How We Lie To Everyone — Especially Ourselves
Harper Collins; 284 pages, Rs 399