The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty

Here’s the link. It’s an easy read, the kind of book where I’m at one page per minute or more. I gave it two stars on goodreads. It doesn’t have a lot of new stuff I didn’t already know and the coverage is very superficial. I already knew about Becker’s model of crime, the Benjamin Franklin effect, the Israeli parole board study, the ego depletion theory, the broken window hypothesis, etc. – and even though it increases reading speed I don’t really like reading books which cover a lot of stuff I already know. At least not unless I feel that I’m also learning a lot of new stuff, or perhaps make new connections between different stuff I already know – and I didn’t feel that while reading this book.

I don’t trust all the inferences made, and I think some of the findings are quite shaky – especially, but certainly not only, the ones about a potential link between creativity and dishonesty in chapter 7. I simply don’t believe one of the findings described in the book – that the amount of money to be gained from cheating does not affect the level of cheating. I think this finding is just a consequence of the experimental setups applied, and that it would break down if you increase the monetary amounts involved. $10 is peanuts to a US college student, try raising the stakes to $1.000 or $10.000 and see what happens. I am aware that one way to increase monetary amounts dramatically in such experimental settings without drastically increasing research costs along the way is to conduct such research in poorer countries than the US (one dollar is worth a lot more in Bangladesh than it is in the US), but I don’t know if people have actually done this at this point. I don’t really care enough about this research to find out, but if any of the readers know more about this do let me know in the comments.

I wouldn’t recommend the book and I take this book to make yet another strong case for avoiding popular science books. It has way more pages than were necessary to cover the material actually covered.

A little bit of stuff from the book below:

“Becker’s […] approach to dishonesty are comprised of three basic elements: (1) the benefit that one stands to gain from the crime; (2) the probability of getting caught; and (3) the expected punishment if one is caught.” (Here’s a link. Incidentally some of this stuff was covered in one of my previous courses.)

“the central thesis is that our behaviour is driven by two opposing motivations. […] we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves […] On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money as possible […] as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvelous human beings. […] In short, I believe that all of us continuously try to identify the line where we can benefit from dishonesty without damaging our own self-image.”

“When the rules are somewhat open to interpretation, when there are gray areas, and when people are left to score their own performance—even honorable games such as golf can be traps for dishonesty.”

“when our deliberate reasoning ability is occupied, the impulsive system gains more control over our behavior. […] The basic idea behind ego depletion is that resisting temptation takes considerable effort and energy. […] Each of the decisions we make to avoid temptation takes some degree of effort […] and we exhaust our willpower by using it over and over […] experiments with depletion suggest that, in general, we would be well served to realize that we are continually tempted throughout the day and that our ability to fight this temptation weakens with time and accumulated resistance.”

“The basic idea behind self-signaling is that despite what we tend to think, we don’t have a very clear notion of who we are. We generally believe that we have a privileged view of our own preferences and character, but in reality we don’t know ourselves that well (and definitely not as well as we think we do). Instead, we observe ourselves in the same way we observe and judge the actions of other people—inferring who we are and what we like from our actions. […] We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings.”

“We have an incredible ability to distance ourselves in all kinds of ways from the knowledge that we are breaking the rules, especially when our actions are a few steps removed from causing direct harm to someone else.”

“In many areas of life, we look to others to learn what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. Dishonesty may very well be one of the cases where the social norms that define acceptable behavior are not very clear, and the behavior of others […] can shape our ideas about what’s right and wrong.”

“Across all our experiments we’ve tested thousands of people, and from time to time, we did see aggressive cheaters who keep as much money as possible. In the matrix experiment, for example, we have never seen anyone claim to solve eighteen or nineteen out of the twenty matrices. But once in a while, a participant claimed to have solved all twenty matrices correctly. These are the people who, having made a cost-benefit analysis, decided to get away with as much money as possible. Fortunately, we didn’t encounter many of those folks […] they seemed to be the exception and not the rule”

A few final remarks related to that last quote. Ariely calls such behaviour ‘cheating’. I call it ‘doing the math’, ‘responding to incentives,’ or perhaps just ‘optimizing’. Incentives in these experiments were such that your payoff was unrelated to the factual accuracy of the numbers you reported, and depended only upon which numbers you actually reported. In such a setting, I’d just optimize. This is indicative, incidentally, I believe of a serious problem with these experiments more generally (and this is part of why I’m skeptical about more than a few of the findings). External validity may be quite low – the experiments may tell you very little about how people behave in the real world. I could tell the old story about the weird test subjects, the presence of significant Hawthorne effects, and so on and so forth – but you’ve all heard this stuff many times before if you’ve read along here. Anyway, from my behaviour in such experiments, if I were to partake in them, Ariely would infer that I was an ‘aggressive cheater’, one of the least trustworthy individuals of the people involved. Maybe I actually am that untrustworthy, maybe the results do have external validity. But if so, I should very much hope that Ariely at the very least would be considered just as dishonest as me in these experiments. I’d never pretend to be a cripple to skip the line in the airport, and I find such behaviour morally questionable at best.


September 10, 2013 - Posted by | Books, Psychology

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