Last Night's Dishonesty Debate

April 4, 2014 BY danariely

Last night, legendary philosopher Peter Singer, distinguished psychologist Paul Bloom, and our very own expert behavioral economist Dan Ariely had a cross-Coursera “debate” on the ins and outs of dishonesty, morality, and ethics. Watch the fun and insightful discussion below, and skim the highlights on our twitter account or under the hashtag #dishonestydebate!

Truth Bending: Why Politicians are Such Comfortable Liars

October 25, 2012 BY danariely

Today many Americans find themselves thinking: how are politicians so comfortable lying?

The answer may be found in the important element of how they lie. Specifically, politicians rarely lie straightforwardly; instead, they bend the truth. Because “truth bending” is rooted in some version of the truth, it creates enough wiggle room for politicians to maintain the belief that they are good, honest people.

Moral psychology shows that people lie to the extent that they can still see themselves as good people. Their wrongful or shady actions need to allow enough wiggle room such that they do not perceive themselves as bad, and truth-bending conveniently provides this flexibility.

Most of the popular 2012 elections lies are examples of truth bending. When we examine this component, we can better understand why politicians feel so comfortable making false claims. Let’s take a look at two of the most popular bends.


 “The 47 Percent” Attack Ads

The Bend: 

Obama for America ads use the 47% comments to say Romney doesn’t care about veterans, the elderly, and at least 47% of the country. 

The Truth: 

Romney commented in a discussion of his campaign strategy, “My job is not is not to care about … the 47%.” However, he did not mean that he did not care about these people nor did he state that he does not want their lives to be improved. Instead, Romney meant that he would not focus on courting these voters because he believes that those efforts would be a waste of the Romney campaign’s time.


“You didn’t build that”

The Bend:

The Romney campaign publicizes the following quote from Obama:  “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.” This quote is used by the Romney Campaign to express that Obama does not think that businesses build themselves and instead rely completely on the government to succeed.

The Truth:

Obama stated that, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.” In this quote, Obama expresses his belief that government can help create the environment that permits businesses to thrive. Obama says businesses did not build the roads that the businesses use. He does not claim people didn’t build their own businesses.

Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that when people want to do or believe something, they ask themselves, “Can I do this?” and search for an argument to support their desired actions.

Thus, when deciding whether an action is morally permissible, people have to convince themselves that it is. Without enough wiggle room, people cannot always rationalize their actions. However, as in the examples above, the combination of three factors create enough wiggle room for the campaigns to carry out such truth bending.

1. There is a bit of truth in the lie. These bends are grounded in direct quotes, or what high school students would call “primary evidence.” A politician may feel morally wrong putting words in another politician’s mouth, but taking the words that another politician said out of context may feel less wrong.

2. The essence of the message is true. Even if politicians realize they are bending the truth, technically, they may believe that they are still expressing the truth. The Obama campaign believes Romney only cares about the individuals at the top and the Romney campaign believes that Obama doesn’t care for individualism or the private sector. Their political ads may distort the truth of an isolated statement, but they also believe that the ads communicate a larger truth about the other candidate.

3. Both firmly believe they are the good guy fighting for the world. When people believe they are doing something altruistic (e.g., helping a family member), their wiggle room (and, consequently, their dishonest behavior) grows. Since politicians believe they are fighting for the good of the entire world, their wiggle room is proportionately greater.

A final caveat. One view may be that politicians are intentionally lying as much as possible and only curbing their lies out of fear of media scrutiny. Though the media does play a role in curbing bends, a richer understanding of the 2012 election comes from understanding politicians as somewhat normal moral beings who are in the perfect situation to bend the truth.

~Troy Campbell and Rachel Anderson~

Just Pay a Fine and Move Along: The Amorality of Drunk Driving

August 8, 2012 BY danariely

Recently, the “choose-your-ride” car (pictured here) has been roaming around downtown Durham and Duke University. The car seeks to reduce drunk driving by posing a choice between a $20 taxi or $1,000 fine. At first glance, this seems like a good strategy and it may indeed do some good. However, the car seems to missing one important element and it is the topic of Dan Ariely’s new book: morality.

In “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty,” Ariely argues that morality matters. He explains how criminal behavior is not a simple cost-benefit analysis, and the threat of punishment only seems to work well when enforcement is nearly certain and extremely severe.  Given that 300,000 of the Americans arrested for drunk driving every year are re-offenders, it seems that the threat and actual experience of consequences are not working so smashingly. Overall, drunk driving is rampant in the states. There are 900,000+ arrests a year. That’s arrest alone! The number of people driving drunk is much higher.

Drunk driving is not a niche offense; it is a social phenomenon that many see as a perfectly acceptable behavior. In movie The Hangover, Zach Galifinakas captures many American’s thoughts on drunk driving when he fondly remembers the night before and laughs it off saying, “Driving drunk, classic!” Many Americans simply feel no moral outrage with drunk driving, especially if they or their friends are the drivers. And what troubles me is that attempts like the “choose-your-ride” car do nothing to address this moral hole in the American conscience. According to Dan Ariely’s research on cheating, people cheat just as long as they can see themselves as good people. It’s no wonder people keep driving drunk, because society has done nothing to convince people that it is wrong.

Here are three specific ways this car fails to appeal to morality:

It makes it a choice. Think of other moral violations such as cheating in a marriage. For many, to even contemplate the idea of marital infidelity would be morally taboo.  It should be the same with drunk driving. People engage in cost-benefit analyses for many actions, but when the action is in the moral domain this happens to a far lesser degree. When something is in the moral domain, hardline rules and concerns for one’s self-concept take over.

It puts a price on the crime. It turns a moral issue into a question of whether you want to pay $1,000 or if you can outwit the cops. According to the message sent by this car, you are not a bad person if you drive drunk. Instead, you are simply a person who is willing to pay a $1,000 fine.

It removes moral feelings. In chapter 9 of “The Upside of Irrationality,” Ariely discusses how thinking of situations like a math problem (rational thinking) can lead to less morality, because moral action is often driven by feelings. Here, the only feeling the car potentially activates is fear and the mathematical nature of the appeal might reduce any potential moral feelings people might have to begin with.


So what can we do?

Like with most socio-political issues, it is easy to criticize others’ solution and hard to put forth your own. Next week, I’ll attempt to put forth my own potential solutions to transform drunk driving into a moral issue.  In the meantime, what do you think?  Do you know people who chronically drive drunk? Can drunk driving be turned into something that is globally seen as morally detestable? If you have any solutions, ideas or articles you think would serve the blog, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to include them in part 2.

~Troy Campbell~

Please Don’t Steal the Charmin

August 1, 2012 BY danariely

A Chinese tourist destination decided to experiment with offering free toilet paper, the Wall Street Journal reports. Rather than the usual procedure in China, where people bring their own toilet paper, in Qingdao they now encounter a toilet paper dispenser when they enter the public restroom (and, naturally, pass it again on the way out).

Now that the dispensers have been in the bathrooms for a month, it has become clear that visitors to Qingdao’s restrooms take an astonishing amount of care for their personal hygiene. Two kilometers (1.24 miles) of toilet paper disappear each day.

In this case, the excess T.P. use seems to reflect our findings with other forms of cheating and stealing: most people are cheating a little, rather than a few people cheating a lot. Of course, there are exceptions.

The toilet paper scenario meets the right conditions for people to cheat: they’ve got the opportunity and face no consequences for taking a bit extra, they can use the toilet paper later, and they can rationalize their behavior. They might tell themselves that the government is paying for their bathroom use in general, not only for that specific restroom; or that it’s expected that they’d take extra on the way out; or that they’ve already paid for it in the form of taxes; or that the government deserves what it gets. They’ve easily justified a way to walk out with wads of toilet paper and an untroubled conscience.

But why steal something like toilet paper?

One explanation probably has to do with the power of free. Maybe Qingdao’s bathroom users are so enchanted with the idea of FREE toilet paper that they would take it in any case, regardless of what they know about its value or usefulness.

Another explanation that pops up a lot with government-provided goods is the tragedy of the commons. The theory goes that individuals will use a limited resource (like commons for grazing animals) in an unsustainable way, so long as they get the full benefit and the harm is spread across the group. In the case of the toilet paper, the theory suggests that people use no more than they need when they have to pay for it individually. But when the cost is spread out across Qingdao, they are happy to overuse the resource. The usual prescription is to make individuals pay for the resource on their own—in other words, to go back to the days without free toilet paper.

But there might be a better solution. We can take research from behavioral economics to think of ideas that may be less strict than taking away the free toilet paper and, instead, simply push people toward lighter use of the product. How about replacing the landscape paintings above some dispensers with a picture of watching eyes—a tactic that has effectively encouraged people to clean up after themselves and pay on the honor system.

In Qingdao, restroom managers have attempted to confront their problem by posting a poetic reminder of social responsibility:

Convenience for you,
convenience for me,
civility is there for all to see.
My paper use, your paper use,
conservation is up to us.

The sign hasn’t had a noticable effect yet, but it may be on the right track. Reminders like the poem sometimes work (p.41, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty) to keep people from stealing toilet paper. The Qingdao bathroom poets appeal to bathroom users’ social norms (“civility is there for all to see”) and allude to future benefits (convenience and conservation)—tactics that have been shown to work in getting people to wash their hands. But getting some sort of assent—like a signature—may be even more effective.

For example, bathroom visitors could sign in under a poem like this:

Future benefits and social obligations
Should outweigh your current temptations
You agree not to steal by signing below
You’ll take just what you need when you need to go

Sign here:    _______________________



Of course, if the bathroom management is going to ask people to sign anywhere, they might also want to keep watch over the “free” pens.

~Susan Wunderink~

Dishonest Drunks

May 13, 2011 BY danariely

Beer tapsWhen you think about behavioral science research, the image that probably comes to mind is that of laboratories, computers, surveys, electrodes, and maybe even rats — but you may not realize the amount of research conducted in the field. At the Center for Advanced Hindsight we certainly do our share of lab research, but we also like to shake things up and occasionally target the unsuspecting participant in their favorite local setting. For instance, you might find us at a popular eatery, your favorite independent bookstore, a busy shopping center, a science fair, or even driving around in our fancy research mobile.

On one of our latest excursions, we ventured out to Franklin Street, a hot spot for many Chapel Hillians to have a drink (or a few) and a good time. When the night was upon us we set out to answer the question: are you more likely to cheat when you’re drunk?

So we set up two research stations and waited for the bar crawlers to crawl. As the night progressed we surveyed the bar, recruiting bar-goers of varying drunkenness. Participants, many with drink in hand, played a 15-minute computer game that was designed to test their honesty. The game was a simple task where participants chose to pay themselves more or less money based on their choices in the game, and of course some of their decisions turned out to be more honest than others. We visited a wide array of bar scenes from the local band crowd to the underground pool players, the 90’s hip hoppers, the indie rockers, and even the Carrborites — and we found the same thing.

Our data shows a low to moderate correlation between cheating and drunkenness, which may suggest that the more alcohol you consume the more dishonest you become. Were the participants actually more dishonest? One could argue that perhaps that they were less capable of completing the task while intoxicated. Of course, we’ll need to keep looking into the possibility. And you can, too. Next time you are out with some friends, you might want to take a few minutes and conduct an “experiment” on your own.

~Jennifer Fink~