When the nail sticks out

rants, raves and randomness

The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty

From a country beset by all types of dishonesty, ranging from petty crimes to large scale scams worth billions and now living in the world’s possibly most honest country, I often wondered why people lie, cheat and steal – or not. So when I found this book at Kinokuniya, I was sure I wasn’t leaving the bookstore without it.

Dan Ariely's The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty

Dan Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty

Well, why?

Well, some people theorize that the only reason people cheat is because they can get something out of it. In this theory, people will maximize their benefits and minimize their losses. This is called the SMORC : Simple Model of Rational Crime (SMORC). SMORC is the cost-benefit analysis. You weigh the cost or the benefit of an act without being constrained  by morality. We  seek our own pleasure and advantage and compare it with the pains and disadvantages.

Both Becker’s and Jeff’s approach to dishonesty are comprised of three basic elements : (1) the benefit that one stands to gain from the crime; (2) the probability of getting caught; and (3) the expected punishment if one is caught. By comparing the first component (the gain) with the last two components (the cost), the rational human being can determine whether committing a particular crime is worth it or not.

Ariely, Dan. The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty. How we Lie to Everyone- Especially to Ourselves. Harper Collins. 2012.

Be honest – don’t you sometimes think this way? Because I do. And I imagine that many of the people in my country feel the same.I mean, whenever I go home, the basic paranoia kicks in. I clutch my bag tighter, keep a more observant eye on my surroundings and never ever leave my tablet to save my seat (like I do here). Because once you lose something, it’s 99.9% certain you won’t get it back.

The (Dis)Honesty Experiment

Dan Ariely, together with his team, came up with a social experiment to test how people will behave given the chance to cheat AND get away with it. They invited students to take a test where the number of correct answers was rewarded with money. They divided the participants into two. The first group was asked to take the test, bring the completed worksheets in front where the experimenter checked the answers and handed in the corresponding amount of cash. In short,  no opportunity to cheat : the control group. The second group was asked to take the test, check their own worksheet and then shred it, then tell the experimenter how many correct answers they got. So what happened? Given the opportunity, did people cheat?

Yes, they did.

Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, we found that given the opportunity, many people did fudge their score. In the control condition, participants solved on average four out of the twenty matrices. Participants in the shredder condition claimed to have solved an average of six 0r two more than in the control condition. And this overall increase did not result from a few individuals who claimed to solve a lot more matrices, but from lots of people who cheated by just a little bit.

Ariely, Dan. The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty. How we Lie to Everyone- Especially to Ourselves. Harper Collins. 2012.

So people cheat but not too much.But put together, the amount is staggering. The FBI claims on its website that “the total cost of insurance fraud (non-health insurance) is estimated to be more than $40 billion per year.” FBI. Insurance Fraud. A Basic Overview. < http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/insurance-fraud/insurance_fraud >

I remember being really irritated back home when people stole toilet rolls from the office bathroom. Goddamnit gals, find something else to steal! Or what about when the milk tea suddenly disappeared from the pantry? I thought it was a sure sign of being from the third world, but apparently, employee theft happens everywhere!

Statistic Brain. Employee Theft Statistics. September 18, 20102. Web. June 10, 2012. < http://www.statisticbrain.com/employee-theft-statistics/ >

Employee Theft Stats

Employee Theft Stats

It is easy to spot SMORC in action everyday. But is dishonesty simply the outcome of a cost-benefit analysis? Could it be so simple as that?

So it’s all about the reward?

Dan Ariely decided to find out by making another experiment where test takers were rewarded with varying amounts- say 25 cents, 50 cents, 1, 2, 3 or even $10 each. Would more money mean higher levels of cheating?

 It turned out that when we looked at the magnitude of cheating, our participants added two questions to their scores on average, regardless of the amount of money they could make per question. In fact, the amount of cheating was slightly lower when we promised our participants the highest amount of $10 for each correct answer. This insensitivity to the amount of reward suggests that dishonesty is most likely not an  outcome of a cost-benefit analysis. If it were, the increase in the benefit ( the amount of money offered) would lead to more cheating.

Ariely, Dan. The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty. How we Lie to Everyone- Especially to Ourselves. Harper Collins. 2012.

So maybe what kept people from cheating more was their fear of  being caught. As with insurance, sometimes the bigger the amount, the more suspicious your claim appears.  So we try to control our greed and settle for less.

Dan and his team decided to find out by  setting up another experiment where one experimenter was blind and the other sighted. Did they cheat more when the experimenter was blind? Again, the answer was no. The level of cheating was the same for both: that is, they cheated just a little bit!

So were people afraid that if they cheated in a greater degree, they would stand out and be too obvious?Could it be the reason why politicians starts with small-scale cheating?

Their early schemes were penny-ante and almost imperceptible, skimming off a few thousands here, doubling it next time, then getting bolder to an occasional million, and so on—just so it wouldn’t be noticed in the voluminous General Appropriations Act.

Valdehuesa, Manny. Minda News. THE WORM’S EYEVIEW: Pork ballooned with the rise of trapos and the decay of the party system. May 24, 2014. Web. June 9, 2014. < http://www.mindanews.com/mindaviews/2014/05/24/the-worms-eyeview-pork-ballooned-with-the-rise-of-trapos-and-the-decay-of-the-party-system/ >

This may be true- but not all the time.  Dan and his team prove this with the next experiment where he told two batches of participants different information regarding the average score. One group was told that the average student in this experiment solved 4, while the other group, 8. So, did their claimed score increase when they were told that the average score was 8? Again, they didn’t cheat more, whether they were told that the average score was 4 or 8.

This result suggests that cheating is not driven by concerns about standing out. Rather, it shows that our sense of our own morality is connected to the amount of cheating we feel comfortable with. Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.

On one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves (psychologists call this ego motivation). On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money as possible (this is the standard financial motivation), Clearly, these two motivations are in conflict. How can we secure the benefits of cheating and at the same time still view ourselves as honest, wonderful people?

This is where our amazing cognitive flexibility  comes into play. Thanks to this human skill, as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvelous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalization, and it is the basis of what we’ll call the “fudge factor theory”.

Ariely, Dan. The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty. How we Lie to Everyone- Especially to Ourselves. Harper Collins. 2012.

So, to make this story simple, it seems that the degree to which we cheat depends on our own sense of morality. Eg: We like to look to believe at our own goodness. So we cheat only by just a little.

“Imagine that rationalization is a machine, that every time rationalization increases we can be more dishonest and think of ourselves as good people,” he said. “And as rationalization decreases, we have a hard time to be dishonest as good people.”

The Chautauguan Daily. Ariely: Small-scale cheating allows us to still feel good about ourselves.  August 6, 20102. Web. June 10, 2014. < http://chqdaily.com/2012/08/06/ariely-small-scale-cheating-allows-us-to-still-feel-good-about-ourselves/ >

But how can we believe in our own goodness and cheat? Does it matter what kind of reward we get? To look at this, Dan and his team set up another experiment where one group got cash as a reward for correct answers and one group got tokens-convertible-to-cash as  a reward for correct answers. The result? Those who lied for tokens cheated by about twice as much as those who were lying directly for money. He comments:

I was surprised by the increase in cheating that came with being one small step removed from money. As it turns out, people are more apt to be dishonest in the presence of nonmonetary objects than actual cash.

We human beings are ready and willing to steal something that does not explicitly reference monetary value – that is, something that lacks the face of a dead president. However, we shy away from directly stealing money to an extent that would make even the most pious Sunday school teacher proud. Similarly, we might take some paper from work to use in our home printer, bu it would  be highly unlikely that we would ever take $3.50 from the petty cash box, even if we turned right around and used the money to buy paper for our home printer.

Ariely, Dan. The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty. How we Lie to Everyone- Especially to Ourselves. Harper Collins. 2012.

It’s harder to rationalize your actions to yourself if you directly steal money. It is one reason why we download music but not take money directly from someone’s purse. And again – this applies to other things like golf, where in order to improve the location of the ball,the average golfer is most comfortable with moving the ball with his/her club (23%), followed by moving the ball with his/her shoe(14%) and least comfortable with picking up the ball and placing it on the desired spot(10%). In short, there has to be a “psychological distance” from the dishonest act where we can “ignore the purposefulness and intentionality of the act” in order for us to forgive and feel good about ourselves.

So… with this in mind.. don’t you this makes Janet Lim-Napoles, who dealt with cash directly, more “dishonest” than the rest of us? Doesn’t this prove that her “rationalization machine” has increased in such a way that she doesn’t think twice about taking someone’s money? Looking at her history of scams and fraud schemes, it seems that Janet Lim-Napoles is quite unconstrained by morality.

“Ako ay nagbuhat sa isang simpleng pamilya. High School lamang ang narating ko, ngunit hindi ito naging hadlang sa aking pangarap.

 ako ay naging biktima ng isang maling sistema sa ating lipunan na akala ko noon ay normal at tama at naaayon sa batas.

HINDI PO AKO ANG MOST GUILTY, sapagkat hindi po ako isang elected, o appointed official, o empleyado ng pamahalaan na may mas mataas na katungkulan at responsibilidad na pangalagaan ang pondo ng bayan.”

Villanueva-Ong, Yolly. Rappler. Would you buy a used car from Janet Lim-Napoles? May 30, 2014. Web. June 10,2014. < http://www.rappler.com/25-thought-leaders/59258-buy-used-car-janet-lim-napoles-pork-barrel-scam >

And  a question to ponder.. is the existence of a Janet Lim-Napoles  a necessity for the politicians to feel good about themselves? Because they are a step removed from the dishonest act, is it how they continue to feel good about themselves and feel no remorse for the wrong doing they have done?

So how do we curb dishonesty?

One news anchor suggested returning the death penalty – serve it to those convicted of plunder. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding PM, believed that fear of brutal punishment can deter crime:

The Japanese Military Administration governed by spreading fear. It put up no pretence of civilised behaviour. Punishment was so severe that crime was very rare. In the midst of deprivation after the second half of 1944, when the people half-starved, it was amazing how low the crime rate remained. . . . As a result I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime. That was not my experience in Singapore before the war, during the Japanese occupation or subsequently.

The Literature, Culture, and Society of Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew’s Political Lessons from the Japanese Occupation of Singapore.Web. June 10, 2014. < http://www.postcolonialweb.org/singapore/government/leekuanyew/lky12.html > >

No doubt, brutal punishments would deter would-be corrupt politicians from becoming corrupt. While it may seem fitting on a large scale, what do we do with small scale dishonesty that plagues us everyday? Is there a better way to prevent dishonesty in the first place?

Dan and his team decided to find out. Gathering a group of 450 participants, they split them into two. One group was asked to recall the Ten Commandments, and the other group, ten books they read. Surprisingly, those asked to recall the Ten Commandments did not cheat. Those asked to recall the last ten books they read cheated. Well, what if the person was an atheist? According to the results conducted to a group of self-declared atheists, the atheists, after having recalled the Ten Commandments, did not cheat. It is interesting to note that it seems to be effective even when no one in both groups (first group and atheists) was able to recall all ten.

These experiments with moral reminders suggest that our willingness and tendency to cheat could be diminished if we are given reminders of ethical standards.

This approach works even  if those specific moral codes aren’t a part of our personal belief system.

Ariely, Dan. The (Honest) Turth about Dishonesty. How we Lie to Everyone- Especially to Ourselves. Harper Collins. 2012.

How do we go about being reminded of ethical standards without resorting to religion? After conducting another series of experiments with Princeton, MIT and Yale students, Dan and his team found out that  students didn’t cheat when they signed an honor code and cheated when they didn’t -whether the university has an honor code (Princeton) or not (MIT/Yale). This goes to show that student from schools with established honor codes are not necessarily more honest than students from schools without honor codes. Why am I not surprised, PMA!?

This is the book they threw at PMA Cadet First Class Aldrin Jeff Cudia. Until now, his fate hangs in the balance. He is either given a second chance or consigned forever to the dustbin of history as the late mistah Cudia—that is, for lying about why he was two minutes late for his class.

In this country, no military or police officer can be eligible for generalship unless he or she is a mistah, or PMA graduate. The presumption is that since PMA graduates strictly adhered to the Honor Code and abided by the institution’s motto—“Courage, Integrity, Loyalty”—during their cadet days, they alone are qualified to lead the nation’s Armed Forces and national police organization.

Del Castillo, Butch. The Filipino Mind.   Sins of the Cavaliers (PMA’ers) – Military-Civilian Corruptions/Names Exposed. Web. June 6, 2014. < http://www.businessmirror.com.ph/index.php/en/news/opinion/29123-cudia-the-late-mistah >

Dan admits the the honor code is not be effective when used repeatedly- after all, the Princeton students DID cheat even though they were reminded repeatedly not to .And we all know the products of PMA in our country :

Problem is, they get to occupy all the highest and most powerful positions in the Armed Forces in a highly politicized environment. It’s only a matter of time before the sense of privilege and power gets to their heads. Slowly but surely, they get assimilated—and engulfed—in a culture of corruption where the PMA Honor Code becomes a faded relic of the past.

Our history is replete with examples of straying mistahs. It’s amazing how quickly and cavalierly they could forget the Honor Code they lived and swore by at the academy. The transformation invariably happens when upcoming officers get a foretaste of, and get dazzled by, the untold riches that await them.

Del Castillo, Butch. The Filipino Mind.  Sins of the Cavaliers (PMA’ers) – Military-Civilian Corruptions/Names Exposed. Web. June 6, 2014. < http://www.businessmirror.com.ph/index.php/en/news/opinion/29123-cudia-the-late-mistah >

So, aside from reminding people to be honest, what are other ways to keep people from cheating? Through another experiment, Dan found out that people hardly cheated when supervised directly. So it seems that we can indeed battle corruption by being more transparent – provided that is, that the “supervisors” and “auditors” don’t become too comfortable with each other.

From Transparency.org : Philippines

From Transparency.org : Philippines

But what else?

It is also important to keep clear-cut rules. No gray areas! And that is where the Filipinos seem to thrive : in the gray areas.

All right to lie, cheat, bluff? Election laws gray, untested by Che de los Reyes and Karol Anne Ilagan

All right to lie, cheat, bluff? Election laws gray, untested by Che de los Reyes and Karol Anne Ilagan

de los Reyes, Che and Illagan, Karol Anne. Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. All right to lie, cheat, bluff? Election laws gray, untested. August 12, 2010. Web. June 10, 2014. < http://pcij.org/stories/all-right-to-lie-cheat-bluff-election-laws-gray-untested/

Dan Ariely says :

Codes of conduct are incredibly important for companies. But companies are wrong in how flexible they make these codes of conduct. When you have a serious code, it is easier to see if you are on the right or wrong side of it. When you have something that is very fuzzy, it is hard for us to see that we are violating it. Think about something like Alcoholics Anonymous. The rule is very clear. No drinking whatsoever. What would happen if the rule was half a glass a day? We would get very big glasses. You would drink today on account of tomorrow. There will be all kinds of tradeoffs. In general, we do not like very clear-cut rules because we understand the exceptions. We understand that we cannot create a good rule. But good rules really help us. They help us to figure out for ourselves what is good. Dieting, by the way, is the same thing. If you have a clear rule about what you eat and do not eat, it is really easy….

Knowledge @ Wharton. Dan Ariely on ‘The Honest Truth About Dishonesty. March 31, 2014. Web. june 10, 2014. < https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/dan-ariely-dishonestys-slippery-slope/ >

The bottom line is, if other countries can curb dishonesty, I am sure the Philippines can too. The question is how. For one, we can start with ourselves. If we understand how our “rationalization machine” works, then we can help to improve ourselves, even without anybody supervising us. We can also increase transparency on government transactions and increase accountability. As with what ex-PM Lee Kuan Yew said, introduce stiffer punishments for those found guilty of dishonesty- punishments that are appropriate for the degree of offense. Lastly make our rules sharply defined with clear borders- not flexible, and definitely not subject to interpretation. That way, there can be no “excuse” or self-justification involved.

4 comments on “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty

  1. Joe America
    June 10, 2014

    The lack of transparency and the absence of speedy punishment, especially for the entitled whom all the attorneys seem to work for, establishes a soil rich for cheating in the Philippines. The one factor the article does not address, and I think it is material, is “peer” motivation. If people see their friends cheating and getting away with it, why get left behind on improving one’s standard of living? Especially if the friend is a mayor or governor or senator. I’m convinced that’s why the legislative theft was so widespread. It was “business as usual” to take advantage of one’s position. You pat my back, I’ll pay yours. You let me handle your pork for you, and I’ll give you a commission. Everybody does it. So me, the taxi driver, I’ll connive a bit more, too . . .

    • ikalwewe
      June 11, 2014

      You’re right, I didn’t mention the group cheating. The book, however, did, dedicating a chapter or so to group cheating: “cheating as an infection” and “collaborative cheating”. What you said about cheating is true. According to Dan Ariely’s experiments /data gathered, cheating is likely to happen if we are monitored by someone we are getting friendly with- we are likely to be cheated by doctors/dentists we’ve known for a long time, for example. And sadly, it seems that the social aspects of cheating trumps the beneficial effects of monitoring. But what do we do then? It’s hardly possible to ask people not to work in groups. The suggestions mentioned are increased monitoring by “socially disconnected” groups (groups who will not benefit from the cheating). One way I can think of is just transparency and making procedures easy, Lee Kuan Yew style:

      Corruption would not be a problem as in Other Third World countries. Lee would attack it by simplifying procedures, establishing clear and precise guidelines in business and making living beyond one’s means corroborative evidence in court for taking bribes. ~ The Good Autocrat, Asia’s Cauldron


      • Joe America
        June 11, 2014

        The Philippines does use living beyond one’s means as an indicator of possible corruption. The current pork barrel scandal may be “breaking the back” of the culture of corruption; I hope so. The big failing of the Philippines is the lack of good investigation powers (paper-based society; bank secrecy act that makes tracking the money hard) and the courts are a jumble of process that give attorneys the power to delay justice a long, long time. So the punishment never is there to fit the crime. I like the idea of simplifying court procedures and mandating completion of cases within a set time, like three months. If the prosecution can’t do it, don’t file the case. If the defense can’t do it, jail the culprit.

      • ikalwewe
        June 13, 2014

        Some people claim it’s very difficult to use one’s lifestyle as an indicator of corruption-after all, many politicians come from elite families. They can claim they “inherited” their wealth. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope that the guilty are punished accordingly. The crimes now are so brazen as though the criminals expect a free pass. But who can blame the small time crooks for feeling invincible when big time criminals are openly mocking the system? It’s about time someone big is held accountable, to show both the citizens and the world that the Philippines is now in the proces of Getting Its Shit Together and mean business.

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