Here’s an Amazon book review I wrote six years ago when I regularly read 2-3 books a week while on the train to and from work. The book served as an example of how behavioral researchers couldn’t reach their stated goals by using standard scientific methods.
Review of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely
Everybody would benefit from reading this collection of experiments with human behavior.
It would be fair to compare the book’s accomplishments with its declared goals. The author stated the book’s primary goal early on when he wrote:
“We need to first figure out what forces really cause people to cheat and then apply this improved understanding to curb dishonesty. That’s exactly what this book is about.
Once we more clearly understand the forces that really drive us, we discover that we are not helpless in the face of our human follies (dishonesty included), that we can restructure our environment, and that by doing so we can achieve better behaviors and outcomes.”
I appreciated the author’s research that described and delineated what his experiments chose to observe. For example, in one series of experiments, people lied in order to get tokens that a few seconds later were exchanged into money. These subjects cheated to an extent that was almost twice the amount of people who lied in order to directly get money.
Another series of experiments showed that when people were tired or stressed, they were more likely to cheat. The amount that mentally exhausted subjects cheated was almost three times the amount of non-stressed subjects.
There was also a series of experiments that tested the “what the hell” effect. The researchers found that the amount of cheating was not linear. A point was frequently reached where the subjects apparently decided to abandon a little bit of cheating, and started to cheat at every opportunity.
The author proposed that a “fake it until you make it” approach doesn’t ultimately lead to honest behavior. He suggested that it would probably start a chain of events that proceeded through the “what the hell” context, where a little bit of cheating became a lot, and ended up with suffering when the truth was eventually revealed.
What these experiments examined wasn’t the origins of dishonest behavior, but rather the middle and ending parts of dishonest behaviors. As such, I didn’t see how the book’s primary goal could be achieved.
Without exploring the precedents to dishonest behavior, we’re also left with a patchwork approach to achieving the secondary goal of changing outcomes by influencing the salient aspects of behavior.
Understanding that I’m not an expert or a researcher, let me offer an approach that could be more conducive to achieving the primary and secondary goals of the book. The necessary but unexplored research area would be along the lines of “What do I feel just before I act dishonestly?”
The subjects’ probable answers to this unasked question would indicate that the person’s unfulfilled needs were in play. These needs are for the most part unconscious, and are the sources of automatic behavior that seeks to fulfill these needs. The outward manifestations of this automatic behavior will lead the subjects to symbolic fulfillment of their old needs.
The subjects in the experiments may not be able to make the connection between their behaviors of say, cheating on a pledge to quit smoking, and their driving forces. This is probably because the subjects weren’t consciously aware of the feelings they had just before they acted.
The researchers may be able to bridge this gap with information obtained from measurements done by fMRIs and other instruments. They can integrate these measurements with the subjects’ reports of their feelings.
To meet the goals of the book, it’s important that the researchers uncover the subjects’ underlying feelings. This is necessary because feelings are usually closer to the causes of a person’s behavior.
The subjects’ behaviors were symptoms of their problems, not the problems themselves. The researchers would be better served to study the entire situation as best they can.
All of us anticipate while we read a book that there will be prescriptions and answers to the circumstances and troubles presented. But because The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty didn’t identify “what forces really cause people to cheat,” the primary goal, to “clearly understand the forces that really drive us” wasn’t attained.
Realization of the secondary goal is undecided. The author presented several examples of how environments affect people’s dishonesty, such as conflicts of interests. He showed how people’s rationalizations allow them to permit a level of dishonesty that doesn’t harm their ideas about their own morality.
But how can effective and enduring solutions arise “so we can achieve better behaviors and outcomes” when the roots of the behaviors aren’t examined?