I have a confession to make: I am a liar. I look at you innocently, with big round eyes and endless smiles but sometimes I distort reality.
This morning in a job interview I inflated the awesomeness of working with us, our internal communication, our team work. I painted a rosy picture. I did it consciously – knowing that it was exaggerated and hoping that it would be our reality some day. The hard truth is: We all lie. You lie, you cheat and you know it. Almost all people lie and cheat by a small amount at every opportunity they get, quantifiable at about 10 to 15 % according to research by Dan Ariely. To me the most interesting part though is how we deceive not only others but also ourselves, working hard to maintain our identity and selfimage as moral and honest people.
The art of cheating – the how and the why – is really interesting and I think learning about it helps us understand how we work and how the world around us operates.
Why do we cheat? The traditional model of the homo oeconomicus – the hyper rational human being – states that we evaluate all decisions based on a cost-benefit -analysis taking into consideration the reward, opportunity and potential risk of lying. Consequently we lie in a job interview to be hired and common sense says the more is at stake, the more we lie and the less cover-up there is, the less we lie. However, that is only one part of the story.
Various experiments conducted in the realms of Behavioral Economics have found that the amount of money as reward and the probability of being caught have little to no effect our our honest or dishonest behavior.
While it is true that we cheat in order to increase our benefit, there is another force inside of us that drives our behavior towards honesty or dishonesty: It is our desire to perceive ourselves as good, honest people. Increasing our benefit is not only materialistic but also about selfesteem, comfort, protection and social status.
If money and the probability of being caught do little to increas our dishonesty, what are the driving forces?
- Our ability to rationalize our behavior
- Our creativity
- A conflict of interests
- Watching other behave dishonestly
- Being depleted or tired
- One immoral act and
- Knowing that others will benefit from our dishonesty.
I will give you some examples to illustrate better. At night after yoga class I usually stop at the supermarket on my way home. Often I find my bags being filled with sweets and cookies instead of fruits and veggies as I had planned. When our bodies are tired or our energy levels are low, it is harder for us to listen to our common sense and resist the bad stuff. After a long day of resisting temptations – imagine being on a diet – we surrender to our impulse and the rational part of our brain is left wondering what happened. We are dishonest, we cheat, we lie more when we are depleted, not only about food and gym memberships.
In the office I used to work at there is a vending machine. Imagine I put in some money to buy a twix bar and the machine gives me both my snack and my money back. What would you do? On average people repeat only three times, taking three free candies when the whole machine is avialbe to them. We justify our action by thinking about how we have been ripped off in the past from the machine. You can observe the play between benefit (free snack) and our desire to appear honest. We rationalize our actions: One twix for the time it got stuck, one cookie for the time it ran out, one coke for the time there was no change left…we can only justify so much and still appear honest, so on average you will find a person taking three snacks. Other than thinking about ourselves, we invite our colleagues to use the machine to get free snacks making our own dishonest behavior socially acceptable.
Our dishonest actions are increased if we are creative individuals, who are swift at making up stories to themselves according to the idea that ‘facts are for those who lack the creativity to make up their own truth’. Like in the vending machine scenario, we create perfeclty logical stories to explain our actions. It happens to me a lot when shopping for clothes that I act upon a gut feeling and then create a story and reason to justifiy my purchase. The more creative we are, the more likely we are to justify our actions in this way.
Dishonesty is contagious. Observing bad behavior – cheating on a test in class, on an expenditure statement, on a tax form – makes us more prone to lying and cheating ourselves, even more so if we observed someone with authority or from within our social group.
There is no hiding it: Dishonesty is everywhere. Kids have learned to lie by the age of four and about 60% of people lie at least once in a ten minute conversation. In case you are curious: The most common lie between mena nd women is ‘Nothing is wrong, I’m fine’.
There are things like more reminders, need for signature and supervision that decrease our dishonesty but we have to be aware that it will always be there, within us and everybody else. We can learn to be more conscious of our own and other’s behavior. As Dan Ariely says “Dishonesty is pervasive. We don’t instinctively understand how it works its magic on us and most importantly we don’t see it in ourselves”.