The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty Summary

In The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, behavioral economist Dan Ariely explores the idea of deception and self-deception, through a series of experiments that either he has learned about or has done with his research team.

Self-deception and Self-help

Like overconfidence and optimism, there are benefits to self-deception. An exaggerated belief in oneself can help you cope with stress, and increase your persistence while doing difficult or boring tasks.

You automatically do what you can to maintain a positive self-image. You ignore your shortcomings, and highlight your successes (even when they aren’t your own). This can help you with relationships and with your career. But on the negative side, an overly optimistic view of yourself can lead you to make bad decisions.

When you and those around you are dishonest, you begin to suspect that everyone is. And without trust, your life will get harder in every way.

As in other aspects of life, here too the balance lies between happiness (partially driven by self deception) and optimal decisions for the future (and a more realistic view of ourselves). Sure, it is exciting to be bright-eyed, with hopes for a wonderful future-but in the case of self-deception, our exaggerated beliefs can devastate us when reality comes crashing in.

The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty — Dan Ariely

Thank your brain for this remarkable ability to make stuff up. Gazzaniga, a cognitive neuroscientist, describes the left brain as the “interpreter” (or the narrator). He came to this conclusion after many years of studying split-brain patients (people whose corpora callosa — a large bundle of nerves that connects the brain’s two hemispheres — had been cut). This brain abnormality means that these people can be given a stimulus to one half of the brain without the half knowing about it.

When working with a female patient who had this condition, Gazzaniga wanted to know what happens when you ask the right side of the brain to do something and the left side to give a reason for that action. He used a device with written instructions to the patient’s right hemisphere that told the woman to “laugh.” When the woman complied, he asked her why she laughed.

Of course, the woman did not know why she laughed, but she did not admit this. She made upa story and said, “You guys come up and test us every month. What a way to make a living!” she said. She apparently found cognitive neuroscientists to be pretty amusing.

This extreme case tells us a bit about how everyone behaves. We need explanations for why we do things and for the ways the world around us works — even when our explanations don’t have anything to do with reality.

The Liar’s Brain

Not all people are equally good at deception. How can you spot the best liars? A group of researchers led by Yang at the University of California tried to figure this out by studying pathological liars — people who lie compulsively and indiscriminately.

Yang and her group needed participants for their study so they went to a temporary employment agency in Los Angeles. They figured that at least some of the people who didn’t have a permanent job were in that position because they were pathological liars. 108 job seekers were given a series of psychological tests. The researchers also had one-on-one interviews with the applicants, their colleagues, and family members to find out any clues that would point towards pathological lying.

Out of the 108 job seekers, 12 fit the pattern (they had inconsistencies in the stories they told about their work, schooling, crimes committed, and family background). They also lied about being sick to get sickness benefits.

The researchers paired these 12 people with a control group of 21 other job seekers who were not pathological liars. All were given a brain scan. The researchers focused on the prefrontal cortex (area of the brain responsible for higher order thinking like planning, will power, moral judgements, decision making).

The brain has two types of matter: gray and white. Gray matter is the collections of neurons that make up most of the brain (the part that powers our thinking). White matter is the wiring that connects those brain cells. Everyone has both types, but the question the researches wanted to investigate was, what relative amounts do the two groups have?

Turns out, the pathological liars had 14 percent less gray matter than the control group (a common finding for psychologically impaired individuals). One explanation is that pathological liars have fewer brain cells (gray matter) fueling their prefrontal cortex. Morality is more difficult to take into account for that reason. But Yang and her group also found that pathological liars had between 22 and 26 more white matter in the prefrontal cortex than the control group. More white matter means they can make more connections between different memories and ideas. This higher connectivity could explain why they were natural liars.

More Creativity Equals More Money

Ariely wondered if these findings implied that more white matter could be linked to more lying and more creativity, since people with more connections among their different brain parts are presumably more creative. He designed a series of experiments with a colleague to test for this.

The experiments found that participants who were more creative indeed were more dishonest.

The more creative the individuals, the better they were at rationalizing their behavior to themselves.
Put simply, the link between creativity and dishonesty seems related to the ability to tell ourselves stories about how we are doing the right thing, even when we are not. The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.

The Dark Side of Creativity

Creativity is thought of as a personal virtue. Most people want to be more creative and admire innovators and original minds — the heroes of culture are Einstein, Shakespeare, and da Vinci. . And for good reason. Creativity has led to the flourishing of mankind — from clean water systems to nanotechnology. But there is a dark side to creativity. Just as thinking outside the box can lead to novel solutions, it can also lead to original paths around rules, while allowing the mind to rationalize behavior in a self-serving way.

Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.

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I write about ideas that matter to me. In other words, revolutionary.

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Sud Alogu

Sud Alogu

I write about ideas that matter to me. In other words, revolutionary.

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