Dan Ariely, PhD, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He is coauthor of Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter. DanAriely.com
Are politicians lying to us more than ever before? And if we can be honest about it, are we also lying more—in our personal lives and/or our business dealings? If everybody is lying more, has it become more acceptable?
The question of how prevalent lying has become is most prominently on display on the political stage this year. Nearly two-thirds of US voters believe that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton is “honest and trustworthy,” according to recent polls.
Experts in psychology and political science say that politicians deceive us more often and in bigger ways, especially this year. But politicians are not the only ones playing loose with the truth. A study by University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman found that more than half of the college students who participated told multiple lies within the first 10 minutes of meeting a stranger. Such lies included both minor falsehoods about having favorable opinions of common acquaintances…and bigger lies often meant to make the liar seem more impressive.
Here’s a closer look at why our politicians are lying to us…why basically honest people are lying to one another…and what we can do to reduce the odds that people will lie to us—and that we will lie to them…
Lying Among Politicians
My recent research into lying has revealed a fairly simple reason that our politicians are lying to us—it’s because we want them to. I’ve found that people tend to complain most about the dishonesty of politicians whose political views differ from their own…while conveniently overlooking lies that come from politicians who echo their own views.
In fact, voters increasingly view lying by politicians as evidence that these politicians are willing to do whatever it takes to stand up for “the right side” on the topic.
Voters reinforce this by choosing news channels and publications that they perceive as supportive of their favored politicians—and their own views—and shunning those they perceive as hostile to their favored politicians and views. If they turn to political fact-check authorities such as PolitiFact and The Washington Post fact checker, who hands out ratings of up to four “Pinocchios” for lies, it generally is only to gauge the truthfulness of politicians they dislike.
This creates a dangerous slippery slope. Even if we tend to overlook the lies of politicians we like, we cannot fail to notice that American politics is becoming less honest. That erodes the sense of trust we have in American society in general—and makes us less likely to feel that we ourselves must behave in a trustworthy manner.
Lying Outside of Politics
There are changes occurring in the world that likely are encouraging us to lie even more than people did in the past…
• The dominance of electronic written communications in our lives—ranging from e-mails to tweets to texts—means that we can lie to people without looking them in the eye or speaking with them by phone. This makes it much easier, psychologically, to lie than it used to be.
• We are living in an increasingly cashless society. This is a key factor. The fact that credit cards, debit cards and electronic transactions are more common than cash means that money becomes less real. And that means stealing—or lying about money—seems less real. And so does lying in general.
I have conducted an experiment to test the effect of cash versus a cash substitute on honesty. Participants are told to solve as many math problems as they can in five minutes. For each problem they say they have solved, they get $1, either in the form of a dollar bill or a token that is later cashed in. It turns out that those who get tokens lie twice as much about the number of problems they solved as those who get dollar bills.
How to Cut Down on Lies
Here’s what you can do…
• Hold your preferred politicians accountable for their lies. As I said above, we tend to focus on the lies of the politicians we disagree with. Instead, we need to admit that our politicians are lying, too, and not deny it when we have political conversations. And we should factor in honesty when we cast our ballots even if that means voting for, say, a third-party candidate. Our vote might not alter the election, but voting for someone honest at least can remind us that honesty matters. If enough people do it, even the politicians might pay attention.
• Make people think about their own honesty. We all have an “inner judge” that helps us tell right from wrong. Often the key to keeping people honest is simply waking this judge.
Example: A woman put a note in a shared bathroom asking people to stop stealing rolls of toilet paper “as it is a shared commodity.” Not only did the stealing stop, two rolls of toilet paper were returned.
• Wake our own inner judge. There are ways we can make ourselves think about honesty, too.
Example: Try to recall the Ten Commandments before playing a round of golf…meeting with someone with whom you might be tempted to be dishonest…or doing anything else where you have caught yourself lying in the past. A study conducted at UCLA found that dishonesty drops dramatically after people try to recall the Commandments—even among people who cannot remember most of them.
• Identify and avoid conflicts of interest. Studies have found that when there is a conflict of interest, it is almost impossible for even well-meaning people to see things objectively. If a physician must choose between two procedures for a patient, for example, that physician is likely to pick the one that has the better outcome for his/her practice’s bottom line, even if the other one has a statistically slightly better likely outcome for the patient. That doesn’t mean the doctor is unethical…it just means he is human—we truly seem to not realize how corrosive conflicts of interest are to honesty and objectivity.
Because it does not appear to be possible to overcome conflicts of interest, the best solution is to steer clear of them. Do whatever you can to keep your interests in line with those of the people around you.
Examples: If you are choosing a new financial adviser, pick one who works on a fee-only basis rather than on commission. If someone asks your opinion on a matter where you have a stake in the outcome, point this person toward someone who can provide truly objective advice.
• Put up pictures of eyes in places where people might be tempted to be dishonest. These images of eyes are surprisingly effective at making people more conscious of their own behavior.
Example: Pictures of eyes placed near a self-serve tea and coffee honor bar greatly increase the percentage of people who paid up.