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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Epigenetic effects of early life stress exposure

This 2017 Netherlands review subject was the lasting epigenetic effects of early-life stress:

“Exposure to stress during critical periods in development can have severe long-term consequences..One of the key stress response systems mediating these long-term effects of stress is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis..early life stress (ELS) exposure has been reported to have numerous consequences on HPA-axis function in adulthood.

ELS is able to “imprint” or “program” an organism’s neuroendocrine, neural and behavioral responses to stress..research focuses along two complementary lines.

Firstly, ELS during critical stages in brain maturation may disrupt specific developmental processes (by altered neurotransmitter exposure, gene transcription, or neuronal differentiation), leading to aberrant neural circuit function throughout life..

Secondly, ELS may induce modifications of the epigenome which lastingly affect brain function..These epigenetic modifications are inducible, stable, and yet reversible, constituting an important emerging mechanism by which transient environmental stimuli can induce persistent changes in gene expression and ultimately behavior.”

In early life, the lower brain and limbic system brain structures are more developed and dominant, whereas the cerebrum and other brain structures are less developed (use the above graphic as a rough guide). Stress and pain generally have a greater impact on the fetus, then the infant, and then the adult.


The reviewers cited 50+ studies from years 2000-2015 in the “Early Life Stress Effects in a “Matching” Stressful Adult Environment” section to argue for the match/mismatch theory:

“Encountering ELS prepares an organism for similar (“matching”) adversities during adulthood, while a mismatching environment results in an increased susceptibility to psychopathology, indicating that ELS can exert either beneficial or disadvantageous effects depending on the environmental context.

Initial evidence for HPA-axis hypo-reactivity is observed for early social deprivation, potentially reflecting the abnormal HPA-axis function as observed in post-traumatic stress disorder.

Interestingly, experiencing additional (chronic) stress in adulthood seems to normalize these alterations in HPA-axis function, supporting the match/mismatch theory.”

Evidence for this theory was contrasted with the allostatic load theory presented in, for example, How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research.


The review mainly cites evidence from rodent studies that mismatched reactions in adulthood may be consequences of early-life events. These events:

“..imprint or program an organism’s neuroendocrine, neural and behavioral responses..leading to aberrant neural circuit function throughout life..which lastingly affect brain function..”

Taking this research to a personal level:

  • Have you had feelings that you were unsafe, although your environment was objectively safe?
  • Have you felt uneasy when people are nice to you?
  • Have you felt anxious when someone pays attention to you, even after you’ve acted to gain their attention?

I assert that mismatched human feelings are one form of mismatched reactions. As such, they may be interpreted as consequences of early-life experiences, and indicators of personal truths.

If researchers can let go of their biases and Advance science by including emotion in research, they may find that human subjects’ feelings produce better evidence for what actually happened during the subjects’ early lives than do standard scientific methods of:

Incorporating this evidence may bring researchers closer to backwardly predicting the major insults to an individual that knocked their development processes out of normally robust pathways and/or induced “persistent changes in gene expression and ultimately behavior.”

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncel.2017.00087/full “Modulation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis by Early Life Stress Exposure”


I discovered this review as a result of it being cited in http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1084952117302884 “Long-term effects of early environment on the brain: Lesson from rodent models” (not freely available)

Prisoners of our childhoods

Same old shit – another failed relationship.

Coincident with the start of our relationship, I was struck by a phrase by Dr. Janov, posted in Beyond Belief: What we do instead of getting well:

“It doesn’t matter about the facts we know..if we cannot maintain a relationship with someone else.”

I kept that thought in the forefront.

Both of us are prisoners of our childhoods. I’ve tried to see and feel the walls and bars for what they are.

J hadn’t tried to process the reality of her childhood and life. For example, on her birthday, June 19, I asked her how she celebrated her birthdays when she was growing up. She provided a few details, then mentioned that her parents had skipped some of her birthdays. Although I had no immediate reaction, she quickly said that she had a happy childhood.

I was at fault, too, of course. I again asked a woman to marry me who hadn’t ever told me she loved me, except in jest.

I asked J to marry me around the six-month point of our relationship. I felt wonderful, in love with her that August morning after she slept with me at my house. I made an impromptu plan: in the middle of a four-mile walk, I asked her to marry me while kneeling before her as she sat on a bench outside a jewelry store. But she wouldn’t go in to choose a ring. She said she’d think about it.

A month later, after several dates, sleepovers at her house, and a four-day trip to Montreal, I again brought up marriage while we rested on her large couch in her nice sun room. The thing I felt would be wonderful brought about the end.

I tried to understand why she couldn’t accept me for the person who I intentionally showed her I am. She abstracted everything that she said. I tried to get her to identify why, after all the times we cared for each other, after all our shared experiences, she didn’t want me around anymore.

Didn’t happen. She didn’t tell me things that made sense as answers to my questions.

One thing she said without abstraction was that I was weak for showing my feelings. She told me I was clingy.

Another thing she communicated at the end shocked me. She somehow thought that I was going to dump her. I said that the thought never even crossed my mind.

I didn’t recognize it as projection at the time. Prompted by her underlying feelings, she attributed to me the actions and thoughts that only she herself had.


One thing I’ve felt after the end was that the need underlying my only stated relationship goal – to live with a woman I love who also loves me – is again ruining my life. My latest efforts towards that goal were rife with unconscious symbolic act outs of an unsatisfied need from my early life.

That unrelenting need is for a woman’s love, but it’s deviated in that somehow she’s always one who doesn’t accept me as I am, and doesn’t love me. My cell is what Dr. Janov calls the imprint that I – as an infant, boy, teenager, young man, middle-aged man, old man – retreat to after my futile attempts to change the past.

I’ve tried to put myself in J’s place. How horrible must it have been for her to be steadily intimate with a man and not feel that his touches, kisses, words, affection, expressed love? That he couldn’t really love me, and I therefore couldn’t love him? That he was actually after something else: sex, property, etc., because it was impossible that he loved me?

“Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released”

On Primal Therapy with Drs. Art and France Janov

Experiential feeling therapy addressing the pain of the lack of love.

What do our time preferences reveal about our pasts?

This 2016 Swedish human study found:

“Time discounting significantly predicts criminal activity and that high discount rates predict crime more strongly at the extensive margin rather than for total crime. The link is much stronger for property crime and among males with low intelligence.”

The subjects were 13-year-old students in Stockholm County who were asked as a part of a school survey in 1966:

“If you had to choose between SEK 900 [USD 138] now versus SEK 9,000 [USD 1,380] in five years, what would you choose?

  1. Certainly SEK 900 now
  2. Probably SEK 900 now
  3. Cannot choose
  4. Probably SEK 9,000 in five years
  5. Certainly SEK 9,000 in five years”

A choice of Answer 1 to get something immediately and not get ten times the nominal value in five years corresponds to a 58.4% annual discount rate.

These answers to a hypothetical monetary trade-off were correlated to other measures such as intelligence and father’s income. However, the researchers didn’t investigate possible origins:

“We focus on the predictive value of time discounting and avoid claims about causality.”


We know from proper economic theory that time preferences are part of human nature. Discount rates and money don’t necessarily have to be involved because humans will value something today more than a similar item in the future.

I’d guess that most of the answers reflected conditioned behaviors. Did the 13-year olds who answered #1 even roughly calculate the problem? I wonder if they felt they would still be alive at age 18?

http://www.pnas.org/content/113/22/6160.full “Time discounting and criminal behavior”

A review that inadvertently showed how memory paradigms prevented relevant research

This 2016 Swiss review of enduring memories demonstrated what happens when scientists’ reputations and paychecks interfered with them recognizing new research and evidence in their area but outside their paradigm: “A framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community.”

1. Most of the cited references were from decades ago that established these paradigms of enduring memories. Fine, but the research these paradigms precluded was also significant.

2. All of the newer references were continuations of established paradigms. For example, a 2014 study led by one of the reviewers found:

“Successful reconsolidation-updating paradigms for recent memories fail to attenuate remote (i.e., month-old) ones.

Recalling remote memories fails to induce histone acetylation-mediated plasticity.”

The researchers elected to pursue a workaround of the memory reconsolidation paradigm when the need for a new paradigm of enduring memories confronted them directly.

3. None of the reviewers’ calls for further investigations challenged existing paradigms. For example, when the reviewers suggested research into epigenetic regulation of enduring memories, they somehow found it best to return to 1984, a time when dedicated epigenetics research had barely begun:

“Whether memories might indeed be ‘coded in particular stretches of chromosomal DNA’ as originally proposed by Crick [in 1984] and if so what the enzymatic machinery behind such changes might be remain unclear. In this regard, cell population-specific studies are highly warranted.”


As an example of relevant research the review failed to consider, the 2015 Northwestern University study I curated in A study that provided evidence for basic principles of Primal Therapy went outside existing paradigms to research state-dependent memories:

“If a traumatic event occurs when these extra-synaptic GABA receptors are activated, the memory of this event cannot be accessed unless these receptors are activated once again.

It’s an entirely different system even at the genetic and molecular level than the one that encodes normal memories.”

What impressed me about the study was the obvious nature of its straightforward experimental methods. Why hadn’t other researchers used the same methods decades ago? Doing so could have resulted in dozens of informative follow-on study variations by now, which is my point in item 1 above.

The 2015 French What can cause memories that are accessible only when returning to the original brain state? was another relevant but ignored study that supported state-dependent memories:

“Posttraining/postreactivation treatments induce an internal state, which becomes encoded with the memory, and should be present at the time of testing to ensure a successful retrieval.”


The review also showed the extent to which historical memory paradigms depended on the subjects’ emotional memories. When it comes to human studies, though, designs almost always avoid studying emotional memories.

It’s clearly past time to Advance science by including emotion in research.

http://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2016/3425908/ “Structural, Synaptic, and Epigenetic Dynamics of Enduring Memories”

What’s a good substitute for feeling loved?

A friend of mine sent a link to this TED talk yesterday. The speaker inspired my friend to change their life along the speaker’s guidelines:

“The very act of doing the thing that scared me undid the fear.

That feeling, you can’t help but strive for greatness at any cost.

The more I work to be successful, the more I need to work.”

I wasn’t similarly inspired. Evidence doesn’t support that a fear memory is undone by behavior that covers it over and tamps it down. What I saw expressed in the TED talk was an exhausting pursuit of substitutes for feeling loved.

This February 18 blog post by Dr Arthur Janov framed the TED talk in the context that I understood the speaker:

“Most of us thought that once we choose a profession and follow it and succeed at it, becoming an expert and well known, that would be fulfilling. We would feel like a success.

Success is not a feeling, loved is.

Fame is other people’s idea of success; it is in a way their feeling…admiration, humbling, important, etc.

And why does the person, even most accomplished, never feel satisfied nor fulfilled?”

What do you feel is the appropriate context of the TED talk? What do you think are likely outcomes of a person following the speaker’s guidelines?