In reading The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely, I learned how our dishonesty in personal and professional relationships is nearly universal. Yet, we still contend we have high moral standards. Ariely writes: “we cheat for our own benefit while maintaining a positive view of ourselves — a facet of our behavior that enables much of our dishonesty.” So, ironically, a “positive view of ourselves” while we’re being dishonest “enables” us to be more dishonest. We absolve ourselves of our dishonesty by steadfastly insisting we’re “good” people. St. Paul wrote as much in Romans.
Ariely’s research shows having laws against dishonesty help, but they don’t (obviously) end dishonest behavior (not a news flash). In one experiment he conducted, people were given a 10-question quiz and then told to grade their own answers. Participants were then paid for how high they scored. The higher the score, the more money they received. They self-reported their scores to the quiz monitor and were given cash on the spot. Ariely says he’s done this experiment many times and each time about the same percentage of people lie about their scores. But, if study participants were given a copy of the Ten Commandments before taking the quiz, later they lied less about their quiz scores. It seems when we’re reminded of our moral code, we’re more likely to follow it.
The most fascinating part of Ariely’s book for me, however, is how we justify our own dishonesty. Ariely researched how often people leave restaurants without paying their bills. He asked wait staff how easy it would be to get away with it. They said quite easy. All they’d have to do is excuse themselves to the restroom and then duck out the side door. But the data show it rarely happens. Switching gears, Ariely asked a classroom of his students how many of them downloaded music on their electronic devices that they had not paid for. Most acknowledged they had done so and saw little wrong with it. Again, many studies confirm this behavior. Both leaving the restaurant without paying and not paying for downloaded music are easily done, but one rarely occurs while the other is commonplace. What’s the difference between these two?
Ariely contends it’s about proximity and relationship. In a restaurant, we see the staff working. We’ve made eye contact with them. There’s a human connection. Their job depends on our paying our bill. With music downloads, we don’t see the artists who wrote and/or performed the music. It’s harder for us to imagine how our dishonesty will hurt them. Ariely also says it’s about the threat of being caught. Although it’s easy to walk out of a restaurant without being caught, we still might be. Behind the anonymity of a computer, we feel the odds of us being busted are much less.
So, we do better, honesty-wise, when we’re reminded of the moral codes we’re called to live by and when we stay in proximity and relationship with others who’ll help us do that. The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said: “the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” It’s seems however, it really helps us if we’re not left to our own devices. We need others to watch us, or at the very least, be present in our lives reminding us who we are and who Jesus calls us to be.