I am a fan of behavioral economics. Basically it is a cross between economics and psychology and sociology. Behavioral Economics tries to understand why we do what we do.
Contrary to the standard understanding of people in economics (that we are rational beings) behavioral economic has shown that we are not particularly rational, but we Dan Ariely’s first book said, we are ‘predictably irrational‘.
The focus of The Honest Truth about Dishonesty is how everyone lies and cheats to some extent. And what can be done to minimize (or exacerbate) the problem.
Dan Ariely is first of all, a good writer. Unlike many academics he is not dry or overly focused on statistics. Instead think of the best of Malcolm Gladwell, he tells stories. He is quite self-deprecating because he often tells on himself because that is how he originally comes up with ideas for research.
So this book is essentially full of short vignettes about a particular area of research around lying or cheating. One area is about how we often feel people ‘owe us’ for bad service or rudeness or some other slight. And so we do not feel bad about shorting them. So a research project offered people $5 to take a survey at a restaurant. The waiter that was introducing the survey takes a phone call in the middle of talking and then proceeds with the rest of the explanation without apologizing. Then the waiter leaves an envelope with $9 instead of the $5. Only 17% of the people returned the extra money. But in the control group where the waiter did not take a call, the majority of people returned the extra money.
There are many others areas of exploration about what works to minimize cheating (signing a form at the beginning to certify you won’t cheat instead of at the bottom of the form to say you had not cheated seems to work, honor codes that are repeated regularly, or even better written out by the person in their own words, etc.)
Ariely also talks about how we lie to ourselves. So he investigates self control and the way clothes or other signaling behaviors change our behavior. Also how we often really do not know what we want consciously.
As with the his previous books and the related Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) this makes me think about the Christian concept of sin. Ariely is not talking about lying or cheating as sin. But he does believe that lying or cheating are a problem and we should work to minimize them. And I think this is an area of research that Christians really should be interested in. Sin is not just a problem that keeps us from God (although it does). It is also a problem that alienates us from those around us and harms society in general. These are not magic bullets, but Ariley does say that cheating is like a virus, it spreads. So cheating in a small way breaks down our barriers to encourage us to cheat even more. In fact even something small like wearing knockoff designer clothing can help encourage us to be less truthful.
On the negative side, once you get the basic idea of behavioral economics there is some repetition in the way this is told. If you have read his previous two books even though the material is different it can feel a bit similar. However, this is better than his second book.
The other problem is the Malcolm Gladwell problem. Malcolm Gladwell has come under a lot of fire lately for picking and choosing research and focusing more on the story and less on the real science. I do not think that is really the case here, I think Ariely is better about the science. But I do think that there is a lot of conjecture because this is trying to understand what is going on in someone’s head, often on a subconscious level that is not even understandable to the person being studied.
And many of these studies are small scale investigative studies that may be different if done on a larger scale.
That being said, if you like Malcolm Gladwell and haven’t read Dan Ariely, pick up either this or Predictably Irrational. They are both well worth reading.