Daniel Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University.  Ariely’s TED Talks have over 2.8 million views, and he is the author of New York Times bestsellers Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality.  Ariely is the founder of an influential research laboratory in behavior studies: The Center of Advanced Hindsight at Duke University.  His most recent book, the Honest Truth about Dishonesty, was released in June 2012 and presents an empirical investigation into dishonesty and cheating.

The Politic: Why cheating? What made you want to study dishonesty?

Enron happened.  Everybody was pointing at the three architects of the disaster, and then I met a person I really admired who was on the inside, and he basically described his own world as being wishful blindness.  He actually said that he created an ideology for himself to help believe that what was going on was actually a good thing.  So that basically made me wonder: was the dishonesty that was happening better described by three people or was it something that we could all do if placed in the same circumstances.

The Politic: As you start to study cheating on this massive institutional scale, what kind of psychological phenomena do you find responsible?

It’s all about the fact that people want to achieve two things at the same time.  We want to think of ourselves as honest, wonderful people, and then we want to benefit from cheating.  Our ability to rationalize our own actions can actually help us be more dishonest while thinking of ourselves as honest.  So the idea that everybody else does it, or the idea that nobody is really going to suffer, or the idea that the entity you are stealing from is actually a bad entity, or the idea that you don’t see it—all of those things help people be dishonest.

The Politic: You talk about Wall Street and how financial instruments can facilitate this dishonesty.  Do you think that government regulation can mitigate corporate dishonesty?

You need three things to be dishonest.  The first thing you need is a conflict of interest, the motivation to see the world in a certain way.  There was an academic paper many years ago called “They Saw a Game.”  I think they described a football game between Yale and Harvard, and what they did was they interviewed people after the game, and they came to the conclusion that the Yale students and the Harvard students couldn’t possibly have been at the same game, because everything they saw was so different.  The second thing is you need is fuzzy rules.  When the rules are very clear and you know where you are, you can’t do anything and not think that you are a bad person.  And the third thing is rationalization.  So for policymakers, it’s important to think of all of those elements.  When you have conflicts of interest, you should try and reduce it or eliminate it.  You should try and limit the fuzzy rules of the agreement, just so people know what they are.  And then finally, you should look at places where rationalization could attack, and try and get people either not be able to do it, or regulate that to a higher degree.

The Politic: What do you think the culture of cheating looks like in the U.S. Congress?

People feel they are cheating for the good of other people.  Just imagine I ran for Congress and I get to be dishonest; I can justify it to myself and say ‘as long as you vote for me, you will actually be much better off.’  And once you can start thinking this way, that your actions are for the purpose of other people, then it’s easier to rationalize.  The second thing is the question of everybody else is doing it, which I think is also very common, and as we have more and more stories about how politicians are being dishonest, it is becoming more and more likely that other people will behave this way.  And then, there’s another thing.  We did a little study in which we asked people how much they are willing to allow their politicians to be dishonest.  And what we basically found is that people want their own politicians to be more dishonest.  People realize that politics is a dirty system, and if you care about the outcome, all of a sudden you want your politicians to play according to the real rules of the game, which include lots of dishonesty.

The Politic: Do you have any ideas for how we can reform this vicious cycle?

So it is going to be very tough. I think the only way to do it is to do something like the South African Reconciliation Act, where you basically say from today on, things are going to be different.  And there has to be some agreement that that is what is going to happen. Because otherwise, why would you stop tomorrow?  Why not delay it by another day or after the election season is over.

The Politic: Along these lines of reform, you talk about how our criminal justice system is founded on a rational choice theory for decision-making.  Can you envision what a psychologically informed criminal justice system would look like?

The current punishment system assumes people do a cost-benefit analysis.  If people do the cost-benefit analysis, it is very easy to just create very harsh punishments, for example the death penalty.  And as long as you have these high penalties, there’s no problem because everybody will do the cost-benefit analysis and nobody would commit any crime.  The reality is that people don’t think about the long-term consequences of their actions.  There’s no evidence of the death penalty decreasing crime.  So what we’re doing is sort of like a band-aid approach.  We tempt people to be dishonest with conflicts of interest, fuzzy rules, and very easy ways to rationalize things.  And then we punish them harshly. That creates lots of punishment, but it’s not decreasing the amount of dishonesty. If we want to decrease the amount of dishonesty, I would go back to those three components we talked about and I would try to attack them directly.

The Politic: You said before that rational thought can produce more dishonesty.  Then, as rational thinkers, are human beings fundamentally dishonest people?

The nice reality about the whole thing is that people don’t steal and cheat enough.  If you were a perfectly rational agent, you would be much more dishonest than you are now.  There’s probably an opportunity for you everyday to steal from the dorms and nobody would find out.  I am now sitting in the lounge of some airport—lots of stuff I could probably steal from here and nobody would find out.  So we are actually better than economic theory would predict.  What is stopping us is an internal sense of justice.


Brett Davidson is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.


Published by Brett Davidson

Brett Davidson is a contributor to The Politic from Park City, Utah. Contact him at brett.davidson@yale.edu.

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