In his book, “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty,” Dan Ariely posits that we all are a bit dishonest, and the extent to which we are dishonest in any situation or across the spectrum depends upon our tolerance for dishonesty -- how dishonest can we be and still view ourselves as good people?
On one end of the spectrum, you have the sociopaths. Lacking empathy, they can justify a good amount of lying and deception to achieve their goals.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the saints, those who would almost never tell a lie.
In between, you have the majority of the population, and even that is a wide spectrum.
Ariely lists 8 factors which increase a tendency toward dishonesty:
- Ability to rationalize. If you can rationalize why you can do it and still be a good person, then it is much easier for you to do it.
- Conflicts of interest. If it would be in your best interest to have something, but you could not come by it honestly, or at least not as quickly or easily honestly, then you might go for what is in your best interest anyway.
- Creativity. If you are creative, you are better able to rationalize, so you can better find ways to have your cake and eat it, too.
- One immoral act. It’s a slippery slope. If I’ve already done this, then I’m already dishonest, and so it’s easier for me to be dishonest about the next thing, too.
- Being depleted. If you are tired, you are less able to refuse yourself what you want.
- Others benefiting from our dishonesty. Yes, the dress really does look beautiful on you.
- Watching others behave dishonestly. If everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I do it, too? You’ve been desensitized to dishonesty.
- Being in a culture that gives examples of dishonesty. Again, if everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I do it, too? Plus, in this situation, it’s socially acceptable to do so.
To his list, I would add that your earlier life experiences may play a part. As a child, was it safer to lie or safer to tell the truth in your household? If it was safer to lie, then you would likely find it easier to rationalize being dishonest, you would have grown up in a culture that gave examples of dishonesty (even if you no longer lived in one), and you would likely have watched others behaving dishonestly.
I would also add “poor impulse control” to the list. It’s similar to being depleted, but the impairment is there continuously. It makes it that much harder to tell the truth when faced with a conflict of interest.
Ariely provides 4 factors which decrease dishonesty:
- Pledge. If you vow to do something, at least in the short-term after you have made your vow, you are more likely to do so. That explains swearing an oath to tell the truth before you take the stand as a witness at trial.
- Signatures. If before completing a form, you sign an agreement that you will complete it honestly, you are more likely to answer honestly.
- Moral reminders. Any little reminder as to morality can help you to be honest.
- Supervision. If someone is watching, you are more likely to be honest.
How can we apply this knowledge at home and at work?
Changes at Home
If you are concerned that your spouse is being dishonest with you, look at the factors which increase a tendency toward dishonesty. How many of them apply? What could you do to alter any of those factors?
For example, maybe you have a difficult conversation on her day off when she isn’t depleted so that she has the resources available to be truthful.
Maybe you change your TV patterns. Are there any shows that you watch together that normalize dishonesty? There’s probably a reason why my husband hates me watching, “Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce.” The name alone is enough to make him shudder.
What could you do to decrease dishonesty in the relationship?
Pledge to tell the truth at the beginning of a difficult conversation.
Add a little moral reminder in the rooms you use most. Put your wedding picture up on display. Put up a quote from your favorite spiritual source or a picture of something spiritually significant to you -- a church, temple, synagogue, mosque, etc., or something else entirely.
Changes at Work
If you are concerned about dishonesty in the workplace, again, look at the factors which increase a tendency toward dishonesty. How many of them apply? What could you do to alter any of those factors?
Supervision is key if you are concerned about dishonesty in the workplace. Supervision give you a better understanding of which factors are contributing most to dishonesty within the workplace, while also providing its own deterrent to dishonesty in the workplace.
If you have people pledge to do something, make sure they renew that pledge regularly. You can’t just pledge once and be done with it. Pledge often until the behavior becomes a new habit.