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Daily Dose

Why we lie and how we can become more honest

Billy Joel certainly got it right when he sang, “Honesty is such a lonely word. Everyone is so untrue.” But in depicting the deceptions of love, even he may not have fathomed just how pervasive dishonesty is in our society.

In fact, Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely argues in his new book, “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty,” that “we lie to everyone, especially ourselves.” It’s the lies we tell ourselves that enable investment bankers to knowingly unload junk funds to their clients, government workers to steal office supplies, and doctors to prescribe drugs they get paid to speak about.

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Ariely blames our behaviors on two opposing motivations: We would like to view ourselves as honest, value-driven people, but we would also like to make as much money as possible or achieve other goals to get us ahead in life. In order to reconcile these dueling aims, we employ what Ariely calls “cognitive flexibility” — the ability to minimize the extent of our cheating in order to still view ourselves as wonderful human beings.

There’s probably an evolutionary purpose for this rationalization, because research suggests it may be better for our health to avoid thinking about how much we lie if we’re not going to do anything about it.

A recent University of Notre Dame study asked more than 100 volunteers to count how many times they were dishonest during a 10-week study, but instructed half the group to make a concerted effort to tell the truth at all times. By the end of the study, those who simply counted their lies and did nothing to avoid them wound up with more sore throats, headaches, and mood swings compared with those who worked hard to be honest.

In researching his book, Ariely spoke to insider traders and accountants who fudged financial statements, as well as consultants who padded their billable hours. “One banker involved in insider trading told me he received all kinds of hints and secrets from his lawyer,” Ariely said. “He told himself it wasn’t cheating since he wasn’t getting precise tips and that everyone already had this information. It’s all about rationalization.”

A parent described in the book was called into school after his son was caught stealing pencils from another student. The man chastised his son. I would have taken a stack of pencils from the office, the father told his son, if only I had known you needed them.

“The more distance we have from the source we’re stealing from, the easier it is for us to steal,” Ariely explained. “We rationalize that we’re not taking money from someone’s pocket if it’s our large company.” While we would never grab a few dollars from a singer’s wallet, some of us don’t consider an illegal download of her song to be stealing.

Through his own studies, Ariely even found that people cheat on IQ tests taken just for fun when they’re allowed to peek at the answers at the bottom of the page. (He admitted that he helped himself to a higher MENSA score when he took a quiz in a magazine.)

For those wanting to reduce how often they lie and cheat, Ariely offered some advice: “You have to first recognize that it’s not only bad people who lie and to recognize times when you’re not being completely honest.”

Once you become more self-aware, look for three things that are likely to pull you into deception.

1. Conflicts of interest. If you have a personal financial interest in a product or transaction, you’re not going to be able to make an honest assessment of it because you have something to gain by being dishonest. This applies to doctors getting free lunches from drug manufacturers and real estate agents pricing a house lower to get a quicker commission. Journalists also have to avoid conflicts, such as taking a speaking fee from an organization they cover.

2. Fuzzy rules. Parents who lie about their children’s ages to get them reduced-price tickets to Disney follow fuzzy rules. Consultants also bend the rules if they pad their bills because that’s what the boss expects.

3. Ability to rationalize. Once “everyone is doing it” runs through your mind, you know you’re rationalizing your dishonesty. Just because everyone with a small business underreports earnings does not mean that it’s OK to cheat on your taxes.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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