Review of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves

Here’s an Amazon book review I wrote five 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.

I think it would be fair to compare the book’s accomplishments with its declared goals. The author states the book’s primary goal early on when he writes, “..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.” He continues to state, “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 appreciate the author’s research that describes and delineates 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 proposes that a “fake it until you make it” approach doesn’t ultimately lead to honest behavior. He suggests that it would probably start a chain of events that proceed through the “what the hell” context, where a little bit of cheating becomes a lot, and ends up with suffering when the truth is eventually revealed.

But what these experiments examined, in my view, was not the origins of dishonest behavior, but rather the middle and ending parts of dishonest behaviors. As such, I don’t see how the book’s primary goal can be achieved.

Without exploring the precedents to dishonest behavior, we are 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. In my opinion, the necessary but unexplored research area would be along the lines of, “What do I feel just before I act dishonestly?”

I feel that 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 aren’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.

In my view, it is important that the researchers uncover the subjects’ underlying feelings to meet the goals of the book. This is necessary because their feelings are closer to the causes of behavior.

The subjects’ behaviors are 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 doesn’t identify “what forces really cause people to cheat,” the primary goal, to “clearly understand the forces that really drive us” isn’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?

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