A Lot of People Lie a Little

Posted by Joel Hilliker at 3:03 pm on January 2, 2013

“Why We Lie” is an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal from last May by Dan Ariely, author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. It exposes an ugly truth about human nature: that people tend to cheat—but only to the degree that they can still consider themselves honest. He writes,

Over the past decade or so, my colleagues and I have taken a close look at why people cheat, using a variety of experiments and looking at a panoply of unique data sets—from insurance claims to employment histories to the treatment records of doctors and dentists. What we have found, in a nutshell: Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little. Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society.

As Herbert Armstrong said, “Human nature wants to be good—or think it is good—but it does not want to do good.”

This widespread, small-potatoes cheating has an enormously corrosive effect on society. It makes you shake your head to think about it.

In short, very few people steal to a maximal degree, but many good people cheat just a little here and there. We fib to round up our billable hours, claim higher losses on our insurance claims, recommend unnecessary treatments and so on.

Companies also find many ways to game the system just a little. Think about credit-card companies that raise interest rates ever so slightly for no apparent reason and invent all kinds of hidden fees and penalties (which are often referred to, within companies, as “revenue enhancements”). Think about banks that slow down check processing so that they can hold on to our money for an extra day or two or charge exorbitant fees for overdraft protection and for using atms.

All of this means that, although it is obviously important to pay attention to flagrant misbehaviors, it is probably even more important to discourage the small and more ubiquitous forms of dishonesty—the misbehavior that affects all of us, as both perpetrators and victims. This is especially true given what we know about the contagious nature of cheating and the way that small transgressions can grease the psychological skids to larger ones.

It reminded me of Dennis Leap’s terrific article “To Lie or Not to Lie.”

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