Let’s do a thought exercise: Have you lied at least once this year? And in the last one week? If your answer is ‘No’, my bet is that you are lying right now. It is part of human nature to lie and we have all done it at some point. It could be for reasons of politeness, political correctness, not hurting sentiments, saving one’s own face, or for bigger personal gains.
Scientifically studying dishonesty is a challenging task because people don’t want to come forth with such behaviors. The typical paradigm that researchers use to study and quantify lying behavior is through experimental studies of self-reported performance on a quiz. In these experiments, participants are asked to solve IQ questions (say, 10 math problems) under time constraints and are told that they would be paid money for each answer reported correctly. They are assured that their self-reports would be the only source of information for payment purposes. And the results? We find that people, on average, report 6 out of 10 questions correct. While, in reality they get around 4 problems correct. Interestingly, the results show that it is not a few people who cheat a lot; rather, it is a lot of people who cheat a little bit.
So, what drives lying? Rational analysis would suggest a cost benefit analysis that one could do before deciding whether to lie. That is, the probability of being caught and the punishment involved vis-à-vis the benefits one would get out of it. If this were the case, increasing the probability of getting caught or the punishment involved would reduce dishonesty. However, vast amounts of experimental evidence has provided no support for these factors.
Is it that some people are just bad or morally defective? Researchers have demonstrated that lying – like other dishonest behaviors – is largely an unconscious pattern. And many times we are not aware of the extent of our own transgressions unless we get irretrievably swamped into it or when someone points it out. Professor Dan Ariely, author of The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, has done extensive research on the factors that influence tolerance of our own and others’ dishonesty. For example, one major cause is the rationalization that ‘everyone else does it’. Do you ever think twice about downloading illegal copies of movies online or when you get the office stationary home? It seems the natural thing to do since we believe we all do so.
Another issue worth highlighting is the Slippery Slope - how dishonesty builds up over time. While studying the psychological biases of why good accountants end up doing bad audits, Professor Max Bazerman along with his colleagues found that auditors tended to overlook small transgressions in financial reporting year after year that end up in big cumulative violations over time. In our own personal lives too, how often do we justify saying ‘a little bit is ok’? What start with minor lies in order to get small short-term gains end up becoming full-blown issues.
All of us want to think of ourselves as wonderful honest people. Often times, we don’t lie willfully; rather we do so in a state of moral slumber. It is easy to fall into the unconscious appeal of short-term benefits. If this is the case, what is needed to fix this? Simple wake up calls work best. For example, in academia and office settings, signing honor codes before starting a project works beautifully. Reminding people of their moral fiber and of what is that they expect of themselves primes people well.
In our own research, we have found that prompting people to take a couple of moments of self-reflection and to think twice – about both the risks and benefits involved – before making decisions is an effective intervention to reduce questionable behaviors. It is unobtrusive as it avoids paternalistic sermons of what one should or should not do. Directly pointing at people’s value systems often backfires and leads to confrontation since it shows them in bad light. With self-reflection, there is an inherent acknowledgment of the existence of both positive and negative consequences and leaves open the room for doubt and for self-adjustment of one’s first impulse.
Lies can range from harmless ones made to one’s spouse, over-reporting the number of hours worked in office, over-claiming insurance, to full-blown betrayal and corporate scandals that get the media hype. Before deciding whether, when, and how much to lie, have a conscious thought about its impact and the trend we set for those around us. Are we ok with the legal consequences if things turn ugly and can we afford to lose that trust? The least we can do for ourselves is to be watchful and be aware that those little acts of dishonesty can spiral out quickly.