Dan Ariely: Without Ethics, We Are Governed By Psychological Enablers of Cheating and Worse

And it’s nothing to be proud of.

Duke behavioral scientist (or, as he likes to call himself, “behavioral economist”) Dan Ariely, has a new book out. This is a boon for my ethics classes, since I’m sure they are getting a little sick of me quoting the last one, “Predictably Irrational.” His new best seller is “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty,” and Ariely has been making the rounds of NPR and various publications promoting it. Like Malcolm Gladwell (“The Tipping Point”), Ariely writes provocative and easily digested books that seemed to be designed to make you skip the movie on airplane flights; they are not deep, but they are helpful, at promoting self-understanding if nothing else.

I’ve been saving my copy of “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty” for my next trip, but the most valuable thing about it from my perspective is that it validates the importance of developing the skills of ethical analysis. As the author explained in a recent interview, when most human beings ( Ariely pegs the percentage at a depressing 98%—and one of the two missing percentage points are people who cheat no matter what! ) human beings let their gut determine whether they are going to cheat or not, they will make their choice according to a potpourri of rationalizions and quirky psychological factors that have little to do with right and wrong.

Among the useful observations he made in his recent interview with journalist Gary Belsky:

  •  “Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest and almost everybody is at some point or another.”
  •  “The biggest driver of dishonesty is the ability to rationalize our actions so that we don’t lose the sense of ourselves as good people.”  Ariely says that people will cheat and steal until the rationalizations run out, and they can no longer twist the facts into an argument that allows them to maintain that they are still “good people,” or at least no worse that most. “The 98” generally recoil from major fraud or theft, but will cut corners, engage in deceit and engage in small-bore unethical conduct  because they don’t feel that bad about it.
  • “Our willingness to cheat increases as we gain psychological distance from the action. So as we gain distance from money, it becomes easier to see ourselves as doing something other than stealing. That’s why many of us have no problem taking pencils or a stapler home from work when we’d never take the equivalent amount of money from petty cash.” Ariely expresses concern that the trend toward a cashless society may cause cheating and theft to become easier to rationalize.
  • “People are able to cheat more when they cheat for other people….If you’re cheating for the benefit of another entity, your ability to rationalize is enhanced.”  This explains “honest” accountants who cheat for their clients, and misbehaving corporate executives who rationalize that they are “only following orders” or “doing it for our investors.”
  • “Small dishonesties matter because they can lead to larger ones. Once you behave badly, at some point, you stop thinking of yourself as a good person at that level and you say, What the hell….Cheaters too can start with one step.”
  • “We think if we make the punishments harsh enough, people will cheat less. But there is no evidence that this approach works….A better approach would be to ask, How can we help people stay honest?”  This is, of course, a theme echoed here at Ethics Alarms, but completely ignored in most of the ethics industry, where the game is all about rules, regulations, fear and punishment—also known as “compliance.”

It is always reassuring to have science confirm what you already know is true. The mind can come up with endless justifications to do wrongful things, and unless we train ourselves to stop making ethics-related decisions on the fly and gain the discipline, tools, concepts, standards and self-control to keep these psychological enablers at bay, we doom ourselves to be ethical by accident only. And unfortunately, we will have a lot of company.

That’s why, after all, “everybody does it” works so well. When it comes to cheating and lying, it is usually true.


Pointer: Instapundit

Source: Time

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

3 thoughts on “Dan Ariely: Without Ethics, We Are Governed By Psychological Enablers of Cheating and Worse

      • Chetaing is a R-rated movie about a half-Asian half-Mexican acrobat bitten by a were-cheetah. She searches the country, solving unexplained murders. Nobody knows how she searches the crime scenes without leaving fingerprints until they realize she’s using her tail to lift things and also she has paws instead of fingers. But she has to find the cure before the next Cinco de Mayo. Will she find the cure, the killer, and maybe true love? Only Chetaing knows for sure!

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