A big part of my mind is constantly occupied with integrity, honesty and strong moral values. Every one of my actions as well as actions of other people are severely judged by the wrong and right polarization (due to the too strong super-ego).
I judge severely, even though I know life is not that black and white, and that in many situations we can quickly find ourselves in a very gray moral area, where good and bad are open to debate and different interpretations – or maybe that isn’t so?
Since I find morality extremely intriguing, I was really excited to see the documentary Dishonesty – the truth about lies (imdb). It’s a really well-directed documentary that explores how and why people lie, why we become dishonest and why we start acting immorally.
The documentary narrator with the central role in the movie is Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. He is also a bestselling author and extraordinary interpreter of complex topics in a simple way.
I really liked the documentary. Understanding why people often don’t behave in a rational way and think as long-term as it would make sense, and why people sometimes become narrow-minded, vindictive and dishonest can help explain many situations I bet you found yourself in – with your own behavior and in interaction with others. As I have.
Let’s look at my main takeaways from the Dishonesty documentary.
The main takeaways from the Dishonesty – the truth about lies documentary
The fudge factor and rationalization
It all starts with rationalization. You want to look in the mirror and think that you are a good, wonderful and honest individual. On the other hand, you want to enjoy the short-term profits, gains and benefits of being dishonest. That’s completely part of a normal human nature.
But between these two lines there is the so-called fudge factor. The fudge factor represents the ability to misbehave without influencing your positive self-image. The fudge factor enables you to rationalize. The greater the fudge factor, the more you are able to cheat and be okay with yourself at the same time.
The fudge factor determines how much dishonesty is still acceptable to you – how much above the speed limit is it acceptable for you to drive, how much to exaggerate in your online personal profiles, what is considered a small innocent lie to you etc.
There are many elements that influence the fudge factor, from believing that everybody is doing it and that you aren’t hurting anyone, to conflicts of interest, a lack of supervision, decision fatigue, distancing yourself from the crime, doing it for others and all the way to creativity. Yes, creative people have a greater ability to invent excuses for being dishonest.
For example, when everybody else is doing it, that makes it a lot easier to rationalize that what you’re doing is legitimate. It’s easy to justify to yourself that you aren’t harming anything or anyone by being dishonest, especially when you know of other people who are doing it.
Small cheats are often the biggest problem
In experiments that Dan’s team does, there are usually only a few big cheaters and many small cheaters; but they both sum up to almost 70 % of people cheating.
Somehow that reflects reality – there are big cheaters out there that are in a position to make big bad and dishonest decisions (financial and political scandals), but they are somehow rare, and on the other hand there is a big number of small cheaters.
Big cheaters make big bad mistakes and small cheaters make small mistakes and dishonest decisions. The bigger problem are the small cheaters.
The problem is that the damage of big cheaters is usually incomparably smaller than the sum of the damage of small cheaters. Small cheating that the majority of people do most often hurts the economy and society even more than the rare big cheats. So even if you are cheating small, it counts a lot. It’s not only the big guys who are doing damage to the society, every small dishonesty does that.
Creativity and dishonesty go very well together
Not surprisingly, creativity and dishonesty go very well together. When you’re in a creative mindset or if you’re a creative person in general, it’s much easier for you to rationalize and find justification for dishonest behavior. Even though creative people may find better ways to support their dishonesty to protect their self-image, all people tend to be over-optimistic about themselves.
People in general believe that they are better drivers than the average. They also believe that they have less chances of dying from a severe disease like cancer than the average person, and so on. Don’t be one of them. Because in the same way, you can convince yourself of other things that aren’t completely true; you push yourself into self-deception.
With a few misinterpretations, you can easily acquire over-optimistic beliefs about yourself and your capabilities. The problem is that self-deception usually starts with small lies and cheats that you know are nothing but lies, but with time you start believing your own lies and they become a part of your self-image. Experiments show that when people start believing a lie about themselves, they just can’t stop it.
For example, a person who cheated on a test and got a really good grade can very quickly go from “I cheated a little bit” to “No, I’m probably a genius” to “I’m definitely a genius for the rest of my life”.
Winning because of cheating or pure luck, both can drive you into an unrealistically positive self-image that will have to face a harsh reality at some point. It’s not only self-image that is prone to dishonesty.
You adjust to being dishonest very easily
When people lie for others, for example a charity or kids, they can live with dishonesty much more easily. Actually in most cases, even a lie detector shows no arousal when people believe that they’re lying for a good cause. If you can justify that you’re doing something for a good cause, you can easily avoid internal conflict and potential moral problems. Nevertheless, you are still cheating and being dishonest.
In much the same way, your brain adjusts to lying very quickly. At first, a small lie can present a big internal conflict and negative emotional arousal for you. When you do it a few times, you get used to it and it becomes normal to you.
Then you can usually go for a bigger lie, and so on. While lying goes up, the brain response goes down. In that way, lies start to grow like a monster that you can’t control anymore at some point. And at that point, you can only hope that the monster doesn’t eat you. But often it does.
Distance allows people to have more ambiguity between them and an immoral act. The distance increases the probability of being dishonest.
It’s much harder for people to decide if they would push somebody under the train to save 100 other lives than if they only had to press a button that would kill somebody in order to save 100 people. Money shows very well how distance leads to more dishonesty.
Money is becoming more and more only a number on an ATM or an online bank, it doesn’t feel real. So there is a great distance between a person and virtual money. That’s why we can see so many financial scandals.
Your social environment matters a lot
But it’s not only distance that increases the probability of being dishonest. If your perception is that it’s socially okay to cheat, there is also a greater probability that you will cheat.
If you assume that there’s no downside to cheating, there is also a greater chance that you will cheat. But on the other hand, if you are reminded of a moral code before you have to make a moral decision, the probability of cheating goes down.
Interestingly, there is no difference in being dishonest between men and women.
On the very basic level, people cheat the same in all parts of the world. It’s not about cheating, it’s about being human. Dishonesty is a part of us. That’s why you need to think about how to protect yourself against your own behavior and the bad behavior of other people. You need to build yourself a system that’s one step in front of you. And as a society, we need systems that are transparent and lead to the right moral acts.
In the end, lying is not always bad. Lying helps children imagine things, helps them build brain synapses and learn to predict what the other person is thinking about. Children need to imagine and think big to develop their mind to the full. But when you grow up, that need is not there anymore. At some point, being dishonest becomes a poor life strategy.
Maybe, just maybe, sometimes in the adult life and in very specific situations not being radically honest is also the way to go. For example, when somebody’s feelings are at stake, when lying prevents harm or when it’s a matter of national security.
But now we’re already on very thin ice and a gray moral area, where it’s completely up to you to decide when a lie is justified and when it isn’t. I think we can claim with great confidence that in the majority of cases, dishonesty doesn’t pay off.
Here is a TED talk, kind of a short version of the documentary:
Lessons learnt that you have to implement in your life
In the long-term perspective, dishonesty and lying rarely pay off. Sooner or later being dishonest and enjoying short-term benefits bites you in the ass and damages your long-term quality of life, reputation and your potential.
To reinforce all the things we have learnt, here is a summary of the dishonesty lessons you simply have to follow for long-term happiness in life and being able to sleep at night:
- Make a rule that you are always honest. If you lie once, you are more likely to lie again, and the next lie will probably be bigger than the last one. Your brain quickly adapts to the new “reality”.
- Analyze your fudge factor and make sure you’re keeping it as small as you can, with the lowest margin possible. Analyze yourself when you’re speeding, when you’re prone to not being completely honest etc.
- Watch out for rationalization that drives you to dishonesty and a fake feeling of progress. Know when you are trying to find excuses for the shortcuts you’re taking.
- Especially be careful about elements that increase the fudge factor – make sure these things aren’t leading you into doing things you don’t want to do.
- Everybody’s doing it
- Conflict of interest
- I’m not hurting anyone
- Lying for others
- Creativity used in the wrong kind of way
- Lack of supervision
- Poor social norms
- Decision fatigue
- Distance from the crime
- Analyze very carefully if what’s acceptable in your social circles is really the right moral stand for you and if following the crowd will lead you to the best long-term results.
- People you spend time with matter a lot, so make sure to spend time with morally strong people.
- Don’t assign all accomplishments to your hard work, it might also be pure luck or being in the right environment or having good genes or only because you cheated a little bit (I hope not). Always stay humble and work hard.
- Build yourself a personal moral codex you always follow and put together a yearly integrity report. Make sure you succeed based on your own rules, which are grounded in a strong moral high ground. You can also put together such a codex for the company you work for.
- Even if you assume (or you know 99 % for sure) that there is no downside to cheating, don’t do it anyway, because you know you always do the right thing. When others aren’t looking, the strength of your character is uncovered.
- For a society to function properly and healthy, there must be a high level of trust. For a high level of trust, there is no room for dishonesty. That’s the connection to how you can contribute to a better world with your own strong morality; by being a good role-model. Every act counts, even the smallest one.
If you’re interested in the topic and want to find out more, here are a few links: