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Liar, Liar, Liar

Dan Ariely has found that "what separates honest people from not-honest people is not necessarily character, it's opportunity."
Gary Waters
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Getty Images/Ikon Images
Dan Ariely has found that "what separates honest people from not-honest people is not necessarily character, it's opportunity."

When we think about dishonesty, we mostly think about the big stuff.

We see big scandals, big lies, and we think to ourselves, I could never do that. We think we're fundamentally different from Bernie Madoff or Tiger Woods.

But behind big lies are a series of small deceptions. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, writes about this in his book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.

"One of the frightening conclusions we have is that what separates honest people from not-honest people is not necessarily character, it's opportunity," he said.

These small lies are quite common. When we lie, it's not always a conscious or rational choice. We want to lie and we want to benefit from our lying, but we want to be able to look in the mirror and see ourselves as good, honest people. We might go a little too fast on the highway, or pocket extra change at a gas station, but we're still mostly honest... right?

That's why Ariely describes honesty as something of a state of mind. He thinks the IRS should have people sign a pledge committing to be honest when they start working on their taxes, not when they're done. Setting the stage for honesty is more effective than asking someone after the fact whether or not they lied.

Ariely says the research about honesty isn't all negative. We have plenty of opportunities to lie, cheat and steal, without getting caught. And we usually don't take those opportunities.

"There's a lot of good in us," he said. "In fact, the surprising thing for a rational economist would be: why don't we cheat more?"

Additional Resources:

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty ,by Dan Ariely, 2012.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.