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16 Jul 2012

Lying About Honesty

We like to believe we’re honest. However, who we are is often quite different from who we think we are; thus, we are less truthful than we think we are. We cover ourselves by shopping for rationales that will allow us to lie and cheat.

Understanding the role of rationalization in lying is the key to combating it. “A Tissue of Lies,” (The Economist, June 9, 2012 edition) talks about Dan Ariely’s findings in his book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. According to Ariely, people are more likely to cheat if:

  • Others are cheating
  • They can appear more intelligent or popular than they really are
  • They can be altruistic or help someone they like
  • Others from another social group – of which they don’t belong – cheat
  • They are in a foreign country
  • They are using digital money rather than real money
  • It’s retribution against people who treated them badly
  • They want people to believe their fashionable knockoffs are real
  • A gift, donation or other assistance is given to them but doesn’t appear as a bribe

Euphemisms and eloquence are two other ways we lie to ourselves about honesty. Subtle forms also exist because information influences us even if we believe it doesn’t. Gifts, donations and assistance from sales people are examples. This means a scientist who receives a commercial grant or a politician who receives a contribution can’t guarantee that these do not influence their work.

Thus, to combat this we need work environments that reduce rationalizations and encourage openness, especially since – as the article mentions – business people lie more than the norm. Simple things signing a declaration of honesty reduce lying and cheating. On a higher level, it’s about building the right cultures and relationships in our organizations.


2 Responses

  1. Hiya Mike, this is a great topic. I have always argued though that there are some areas in which we need to be dishonest. It is really no good if we are always truthful. Saying what we think all the time will lose us friends and upset people if we were truly honest.

    The difference is to be honest in our actual relationships and about what we do. Having said that people/businesses and especially governments talk up what they do in ways which I would often call dishonest. It is a really tricky one.

    1. Thank you, Ali, for your comment. Yes, honest is tough. What you say is true. Is it all right to be “dishonest” if we are being sensitive to other people’s feelings? What is dishonesty? If we don’t say what’s on our mind, is that being dishonest? All these questions come to mind reading your comments. I also wonder a lot whether some people, many people can put honesty into perspective so they aren’t offended by it or don’t misinterpret it. As for your comments regarding business; how much advertising would hold up under “telling the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth”? Yet, that kind of dishonesty, if we consider it such, is accepted. Yes, you’re right: it’s tricky . . . in more ways than one! Thank you again.

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