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How to Stop Illegal Downloads

Nov 03

Three days after publication of my new book , The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, I was able to find electronic copies on a few websites that specialize in illegal content. These were high quality versions of the book, including the images of the cover, the references, and—my favorite part—the copyright notice.

I was flattered. On one of the sites, the book had been very popular, downloaded over 20,000 times in just a short period of time before my publisher shut it down.

I was also amused.  The irony of illegally downloading a book on dishonesty was painfully obvious.

But mainly I was curious, as is my wont. As someone who has been studying dishonesty for many years, what could I learn from the theft of my own book?

My first insight came with a personal conversion. Before it was my book being illegally downloaded, I was more on the “Information wants to be free” end of the spectrum. The sudden, though predictable, shift in my feelings when I found my own work being downloaded for free was a jarring experience. Maybe Information finds complete freedom too threatening, I thought, and maybe it would rather be a bit more protected. It was a very clear example of how my own views of morality are biased – as are everybody’s — based on our immediate perspective.

Recently in a lecture on dishonesty in San Francisco I was explaining, as I always do, that dishonesty is largely founded on our ability to rationalize, and a young guy stood up and argued that downloading music was actually the right thing to do. He said that the companies make lots of money while artists don’t (they make the music for the public, not for profit). And either way, he wouldn’t buy the music anyway so it wouldn’t make a difference. “My friend,” I said, “thank you for proving my point about rationalization.” Then I asked him to imagine if the product in question represented several months or even years of his life. All that time he was creating, writing, editing, and marketing this thing in order to fund his next project. And then everyone downloaded it, illegally, for free. At which point he sat down.

My second thought, after realizing my popularity in the “download for free” category, was about the potential for moral deterioration on a broader scale. Once people start seeing a particular behavior—such as illegally downloading books, music, and movies—as a very common behavior, there is a chance that this sense of social proof will translate into a new understanding of what is right and wrong. Sometimes such social shifts might be desirable—for instance, being part of an interracial couple used to be considered illegal and immoral, but now we see such couples all around us and it helps shape our understanding of social approval. However, the behaviors we most often observe and notice are ones that are outside of the legitimate domain (e.g., doping in sports, infidelity by politicians, exaggerated resumes by CEOs) and in these cases the social proof can change things for the worse.

And then I had an insight about confession.  How can we stop such trends toward dishonesty (in this case, broader acceptance of illegal downloading)? The problem is that if someone has acquired 97% of their music illegally, why would they legally buy the next 1%?  Would they do it in order to be 4% legal?  It turns out that we view ourselves categorically as either good or bad, and moving from being 3% legal to being 4% legal is not a very compelling motivation.  This is where confession and amnesty can come into play.

What we find in our experiments is that once we start thinking of ourselves as polluted, there is not much incentive to behave well, and the trip down the slippery slope is likely.  This is the bad news.  The good news is that in such cases, confession, where we articulate what we have done wrong, is an incredibly effective mechanism for resetting our moral compass.  Importing this religious practice into civic life was effective in the Truth and Reconciliation Act in South Africa, where acknowledging the many abuses and violations of the apartheid government allowed the South Africans to forgive past sins, and start fresh.

I think that this same approach could be effective in preventing people from illegally downloading music and books. Why don’t we offer young people (because let’s face it, most of them have some illegally downloaded material on their computers) the opportunity to admit and apologize, receive amnesty for the material they already have, and start fresh.

In the meantime, until we adopt this course of action, I am hoping that the New York Times will create a Best Seller list for a new category – the Most Illegally Downloaded Books.

New ATD: Fighting Feelings of Guilt

Oct 30
Fighting Feelings of Guilt

When we do something immoral, we have different ways to deal with feeling guilty. Maybe we apologize. Or maybe we try to balance an immoral act by doing something good. Perhaps we punish ourselves for our dishonesty. This week, I talk with Tom Gilovich, a professor of psychology from Cornell University, about some of the constructive and destructive ways we try to alleviate guilt.

Ask Ariely: On Planning Ahead, Halloween Rationing, and Flipping Coins

Oct 27

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week — and if you have any questions for me, just email them to


Dear Dan,

I’m shopping for several plane tickets for personal trips over the next couple of months, and I keep running into the same problem: “Current me” wants to pinch pennies by choosing overnight flights, routes with several legs or inconvenient airports that would require me to drive a few hours out of my way. “Future me”—the one that actually has to pick up the rental car at 11 p.m. and drive two hours from Phoenix to Tucson the night before a friend’s wedding—sometimes resents that I wouldn’t just spend an extra $100 to make an already expensive trip more pleasant. Travel-booking websites are getting better and better at predicting what will happen to flight prices, but I don’t seem to have gotten any better at predicting my own preferences.

How can I best determine whether these savings will feel worth it to me in the future? Or, failing that, how can I console myself when I’m pulling into a Tucson motel parking lot at 1 a.m.?


Your framing of the problem is spot on. In your current “cold” state, you focus on the price, which is clear and vivid and easy for you to think about. When you actually take the trip, that version of you will be feeling exhaustion and need for sleep (a “hot” state), which will be very apparent to you at that point—but it is not as vivid right now.

This, by the way, is a common problem that arises every time we make decisions in one state of mind about consumption that will take place in a different state of mind.

Here is what I recommend. In order to make a better decision, tonight at 9 p.m. put in some laundry and spend the next two hours sitting on the washer and dryer (this is to simulate the fun of flight, and if you want to really go all out, supply yourself with a package of peanuts and a ginger ale). When you “land” at 11 p.m., look around for some missing socks (to simulate looking for your luggage) and then, properly conditioned to think about the actual trip, log into the travel website and see what is more important to you: saving a few bucks or getting to bed sooner.

Plus, imagine how you would look in the wedding pictures after a long night of uncomfortable traveling.

Good luck in your decision and “mazel tov” to your friend.


Dear Dan,

I was wondering how you allocate candy during Halloween to make sure kids don’t dishonestly take more than they should. I’ve thought of handing each of the children their candy, but that way the kids can’t pick what candies they like best. Also, this method takes more time, which I don’t have, and makes things less pleasant for me.

But if I leave a bowl of candy out without any oversight, I know what will happen: They’re all going to take more than their share until the bowl is empty.


Beyond Halloween, this is a general question about honesty. One of the things we find in experiments on honesty is that if people pledge that they will be honest, they will be—and this is the case even if the pledge is nonbinding (or what is called “cheap talk”).

Given these results, I would set up a table with a large sign reading “I promise to take only one piece of candy [or whatever amount you want them to take] so that there is enough left for all the other trick-or-treaters.” Below the sign, place a sheet of paper for your visitors to write down their names (and, given that it is Halloween, use red paint and ask them to sign in “blood”). With this promise to take only one candy, the public signature in blood and the realization that if they take more candy they will deprive their friends of having any, I suspect that honesty will improve dramatically.


Dear Dan,

Do you have general advice for how to approach difficult decisions? I’ve been thinking about which car to get for a very, very long time, and I just can’t decide.


The poet Piet Hein gave this sage advice some time ago, and I think it will work in your case:

“Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind

And you’re hampered by not having any,

the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,

is simply by spinning a penny.

No—not so that chance shall decide the affair

while you’re passively standing there moping;

but the moment the penny is up in the air,

you suddenly know what you’re hoping.”

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

New ADT: How We Fool Ourselves

Oct 22

This week’s “Arming the Donkeys” podcast is in How We Fool Ourselves

Several recent studies show that we not only deceive others to further our own ends, we also deceive ourselves about our dishonesty. This week i talk with Zoe Chance of the Yale School of Management about our research into the psychological harm of self-deception and the means by which we can decrease our self-deception in the future.


The podcast is posted on Duke’s iTunes U site. Here’s the link:









The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: RSA Animate Version.

Oct 20

I’m excited to share the RSA Animate version of my latest book. I love this approach to sharing research, first and foremost because I love the visual metaphors the artist uses to demonstrate ideas (particularly the blend of Sherlock Holmes as the Rational Man, and fairy tales as the opposite). Many of them are just brilliant. Second, who wouldn’t prefer to watch a cartoon version of a person (in this case, me) explain something rather than the real thing? It’s so much more engaging, and who doesn’t miss Saturday morning cartoons?

I was pretty thrilled to make the cut to be in an RSA: I hope you enjoy it as well.

New ATD: The Crooked Path to Wealth

Oct 16
This week’s “Arming the Donkeys” podcast is now posted on Duke’s iTunes U site. Here’s the link:
And here’s a blurb for the program:
The Crooked Path to Wealth

Award-winning author and satirist Jeff Kreisler joins me to explain why it makes sense to cheat in business. Kreisler, who regularly delivers programs on cheating for MBA students and corporate leaders, explains why, ethics aside, there’s simply no good reason not to cheat.

Ask Ariely: On Nicknames, the Stock Market, and Justifying Dishonesty

Oct 13

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week — and if you have any questions for me, just email them to


Dear Dan,

My sweetheart often calls me by a term of endearment which, though flattering, is one that his ex-girlfriend called him during the four years they were together. The floweriness of the term does not fit his personality or mine (it’s sort of Shakespearean and we’re nerds), and every time he says it I think of her, though I appreciate his sweet intentions and hold no ill will against her. Is there an inoffensive way to bring this up and get a new “nickname” that feels more personal? I kept hoping it would go away by itself, but we’ve been together for five years and are now engaged. Help!


“Not Guinevere”


What your sweetheart is doing, of course, is connecting a term with positive associations for him to someone he loves—you. It would be nice if you could accept this for what it is, but judging by your letter, I don’t think that this is in the cards.

So now we have to think about how to eradicate his habit. One approach is to give him a negative punishment (a light punch on the shoulder, a sad look, etc.) every time that he uses this unfortunate term and to use a positive reward (a quick neck rub, a compliment) every time that he uses other terms of endearment. This approach would probably work, but I would recommend even more a variant of it that the psychologist B.F. Skinner called random schedules of reinforcement.

The basic idea is to alternate unexpectedly among ignoring this term of endearment, giving him a slight positive feedback for using it and responding from time to time with a dramatic negative punishment (a strong punch on the shoulder, hysterical crying, etc.).

Not knowing what to expect, coupled with the potential for a large negative response, would substantially increase his fear and would make even thinking about this nickname a negative experience for him. Good luck, and keep me posted on your progress.


Dear Dan,

How can I control myself when I feel the irresistible need to break my own rules about how to invest in the stock market?


You are asking, I suspect, about what we call the “hot-cold-empathy gap,” where we say to ourselves: “The level of risk that I want to take is bounded on one side by gains of up to 15% and on the other by losses up to 10%.” But then we lose 5% of our money, we panic and sell everything. When we look at such cases, we usually think that the colder voice in our head (the one that set up the initial risk level and portfolio choice) is the correct one and the voice that panics while reacting to short-term market fluctuations is the one causing us to stray.

From this perspective, you can think about two types of solutions: The first is to get the “cold” side of yourself to set up your investment in such a way that it will be hard for your emotional self to undo it in the heat of the moment. For example, you can ask your financial adviser to prevent you from making any changes unless you have slept on them for 72 hours. Or you can set up your investments so that you and your significant other will have to sign for any change. Alternatively, you can try to not even awake your emotional self, perhaps by not looking at your portfolio very often or by asking your significant other (or your financial adviser) to alert you only if your portfolio has lost more than the amount that you indicated you are willing to lose.

Whatever you do, I think it’s clear that the freedom to do whatever we want and change our minds at any point is the shortest path to bad decisions. While limits on our freedom go against our ideology, they are sometimes the best way to guarantee that we will stay on the long-term path we intend.


Dear Dan,

In your most recent book, you argue that most people are capable of dishonesty. Are you worried that people will use this as a justification for dishonest behavior?


A colleague told me that a student at her university was doing just that. During a trial dealing with an honor-code violation, the student in question brought my book to the honor court and argued that “everyone cheats a bit,” so he should not be judged harshly.

The honor court was more annoyed than impressed with his argument, and they pointed out to him that if everyone cheats, maybe this suggests that extra harsh and public punishments should be used to make it clear that such behavior is outside the norms of the acceptable and will not be tolerated.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

New Arming the Donkeys

Oct 08
Children and Cheating
This week’s “Arming the Donkeys” podcast is now posted on Duke’s iTunes U site. Here’s the link:
And here’s the blurb:
In this week’s program, I talk with Mike Norton, associate professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, about children and cheating. Mike wonders whether kids are any more trustworthy than the rest of us, or simply not as good at concealing their dishonesty.  

Bogus Bonuses and C.E.O. Salaries

Oct 06

One of the most common justifications for hefty C.E.O. compensation packages is that if the leaders of industry are not paid well, the so-called best and brightest will no longer flock to fill the corporate ranks, and will instead go elsewhere. High salaries (and bonuses, etc) are said to both motivate and retain these brilliant minds.

While this sounds somewhat plausible, as it turns out, a new study shows that it’s just not true. One driver of executive pay, called the peer-group benchmark, compares the salaries of executives among ostensibly similar companies as a way of keeping salaries competitive and within reasonable market limits. The problem is, this measure assumes that a C.E.O. at one company could pick up and leave for greener pastures at another, which, as it turns out, is a false presumption.

The study, conducted by Charles M. Elson and Craig K. Ferrere, shows that many of the skills C.E.O.s possess are specific to the company in which they are acquired, and are not readily transferable to other companies. Their analysis shows that almost every attempted transplant at the top ranks has resulted in failure.

What this means is that all this benchmarking makes the market of C.E.O.s seem like a market with high mobility, allowing for C.E.O.s to move to other companies when in fact a C.E.O. who manages one company well is unlikely to be successful in another.  Therefore, a company looking for a C.E.O. cannot actually consider all C.E.O.s as potential candidates. Benchmarking, then, is little more than a way to inflate executive salaries by comparing jobs in markets that are essentially incomparable.

Ultimately this study shows that determining executive salaries needs to be reevaluated and reconfigured with an eye to empirical data, even if that means reducing C.E.O. pay. After all, we are all shareholders in these companies and they are giving away our money for what turns out to be no good reason.

New survey!

Oct 02

I just posted a new study that should take you about 5 minutes to complete. If you would like to take the survey (and I would appreciate it very much), please look to the right sidebar under “Participate” and click on the “Take a quick anonymous survey” link. Thanks in advance for your help.

Irrationally Yours,


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