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  • We tend to cast ourselves as the 'hero' even when we know we're doing wrong
  • We tend to cast ourselves as the 'hero' even when we know we're doing wrong
    Chelsea Casey (2010) ©

Why do we lie to ourselves?

From the NSA scandal to the ‘white lies’ people tell themselves, we sat down with acclaimed behavioural economist Dan Ariely to learn more about the driving forces behind dishonesty.

Location Central - East Asia / Global / North America / Northern Europe

According to Edward Snowden, the American government has spent years surreptitiously working with some of the biggest brands in the world to steal everybody’s data. Meanwhile, the entertainment industry suffers at the hands of illegal downloads, journalists shamelessly invade the privacy of celebrities through phone hacking, and if what’s documented in Blackfish is true, Seaworld is lying to us about killer whales with a taste for human blood. It seems that the world is riddled with more lies and deceit than ever before – yet we do little more than sit back and observe the carnage.

Acclaimed behavioural economist Dan Ariely used these attitudes as the basis for his book The honest truth about dishonesty: how we lie to everyone – especially ourselves. “There are lies that everybody can benefit from,” explains Ariely, when we sat down with him to learn more about the driving forces behind dishonesty. “We think about white lies as lies that can help both us and others. Then, there are lies that are good for us, but fail to affect others – for example, ‘I was late because there was a lot of traffic.’ Then, there are the lies that we tell ourselves: things that we use to convince ourselves that we’re smarter, better, more talented, and so on.” [1] But as social norms shift en masse in light of globalisation, online anonymity and mistrust, how are we differentiating between right and wrong?


Trust me, I’m a corporation
Google ‘McDonald’s is’ and the top autofill option is ‘evil’. The same is true of ‘the American government is’, ‘Apple is’ and ironically, ‘Google is’. The whole world has trust issues, and platforms like YouTube and the rise of mixed-media have given everyone a place to voice them – regardless of whether their opinions are well-informed and accurate. That’s why comedian Russell Brand was given the opportunity to guest edit political magazine the New Statesman, where he encouraged readers to “overthrow the current political system”. [2] It’s how Reddit users thrust 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi into an international spotlight, where he was wrongly accused of orchestrating the Boston bombings. [3]

If we lived in a society where we didn’t trust each other, life would be quite miserable

Dan Ariely, behavioural economist (2014)

And when trust fails us, anxiety sets in. In light of two powdered milk scandals that endangered the lives of thousands of children, along with numerous other food health scares, foreign brands like McDonald’s and KFC reign supreme in China. They’re both amongst the 20 most powerful brands in the country – because Chinese food brands are no longer considered responsible. [4] Trust and reliability have become powerful characteristics for brands on a global scale. According to business strategist Deepa Prahalad, “trust matters more than ever for brands.” [5]

Ariely points out that society itself is built on the concept of trust, and as it diminishes, social structures weaken. “Consider how much trust we have to put in society,” he says. “We give money to banks, and they just give us a letter telling us they have our money and how much we have. We have credit cards and lend money to people, but if we lived in a society where we didn’t trust each other, life would be quite miserable.” [1] Whether it’s the Domino’s ‘pizza theatre’, where people can watch their pizzas being made, or real people replacing celebrity chefs in Sainsbury’s campaigns, brands are doing what they can to enforce consumer trust. [6][7]

Yet as people become less trusting, they’re paradoxically given more opportunity to be dishonest themselves. The NSA scandal in particular has spurred an uptake in government level security for everyday use. While the development of Blackphone – a super-slick smartphone that can encrypt emails, web usage, text messages and phone calls – offers all the benefits of a normal handset with the addition of hyper-privacy, iPhone app Wickr can send encrypted text messages which are destroyed once read. Sure, they prevent the government from gaining access to personal data, but they could also facilitate infidelity or even child porn rings, as has previously been found on sites like Facebook. [8] With the appearance of private messaging on Instagram and the increasing popularity of messaging apps, even social media is becoming more private. [9][10] Given that people behave better when they’re being watched, the opportunity for wrongdoing is greater than ever. [11] “The world has changed so as more people can be dishonest but think of themselves on good terms,” agrees Ariely. [1]

Sainsbury's adverts have replaced celebrity chefs with 'real people' like Jack Monroe Sainsbury's adverts have replaced celebrity chefs with 'real people' like Jack Monroe
The Guardian (2014) ©

Caught up in the lie
And it’s the knowledge of global wrongdoing that’s increasing social acceptance of ‘how naughty is too naughty’: as Ariely notes, the law that “everybody else is doing it.” [1] From illegal downloading – which 70% of the public consider to be socially acceptable – to smoking cannabis, which has received more publicity than ever, following its legalisation in Colorado. [12] But this doesn’t mean people are intrinsically less moral. “It’s a socially constructed mechanism, and not only that, it’s socially constructed in each area of life separately,” explains Ariely. “A lot of my students download illegal material online, but it doesn’t mean they’re immoral in all areas of life, it just means that society has re-framed it to them as something that’s not a moral consideration.” [1]

Being watched makes people feel more conscious and conscientious about their own decisions

Dan Ariely, behavioural economist (2014)

Yet we’ve never been more eager to observe people with a slanted moral code. Modern television has been infiltrated by complex anti-heroes: whether loveable mobster Tony Soprano, hard-nosed congressman Frank Underwood or cutthroat ‘ad guy’ Don Draper – previously named AskMen’s most influential man because “he is permanently conflicted over how to reconcile his morals and his desires.” [13] These characters feel like real people, and viewers respond to the less-than-perfect image they represent. Jaguar’s advert for the 2014 Super Bowl even specifically aligned its cars with super-villains for their “style and eye for detail”. [14]

The opportunity for dishonesty has increased along with digitisation. “Because of the internet, distance from problems has increased,” says Ariely. “And because of social networks, media and global news, we think that more things are acceptable.” The internet in particular allows us to not only remove ourselves from the direct consequences of our actions, but also to become anonymous. “Anonymity reduces social responsibility, and it reduces the views that people have about their behaviours being observable,” Ariely explains. A study conducted at Newcastle University over two years found that placing plastic posters of eyes in areas rife with bike theft reduced the amount of thefts, but the anonymity of the internet lessens this effect. [15] “[Being watched] makes people feel more conscious and conscientious about their own decisions,” confirms Ariely. “It’s about thinking about being watched, and considering our decisions from an external perspective.” [1]

That’s not to say the internet can’t promote good, too. Anonymity can encourage confession, which often reduces dishonesty. “It’s about opening new pages,” says Ariely. “If you think you’re a good person, and you start afresh on a new page, you can live up to your ideals of who you want to be. The ability to open a new page is quite important.” [1] Smartphone app Whisper lets people anonymously confess their darkest secrets – from “I danced with two people at my wedding; the one I married and the one I wish I married” to “the Budweiser commercial made me cry!” The app gets three billion monthly page views from people who want to confess so they can move on. [16] Viral meme Confession Bear similarly encourages people to share the thoughts and feelings they’d never share in a face-to-face conversation.

Breaking Bad shows how small steps can take you far beyond your inital boundaries Breaking Bad shows how small steps can take you far beyond your inital boundaries
AMC (2014) ©

Conscience confusion
It’s our ability to rationalise that equips us with the means to justify pretty much any action we take. “It comes down to mindlessness,” explains Ariely. “We’re not thinking about our actions carefully, and in particular, we’re not thinking about the negative implications.” Many of the terrible things we do are rationalised across a series of steps, and each step doesn’t seem much worse than the last. Take Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White – a chemistry teacher turned international drug dealer. Initially, White took steps to ensure that the medical bills for his cancer treatment wouldn’t leave his wife and children with nothing, but several seasons in, he – and many viewers – found ways to justify the murder and blackmail of innocent people. “What we see, time after time, is that the first step is very different from where people end up,” says Ariely. “You take one step in the wrong direction, and then rationalise it, think about it differently, take another step, and so on. Even relatively small transgressions can lead to far worse situations.” [1]

And lying to ourselves can offer us an opportunity to do things we enjoy, even if we shouldn’t. The e-cigarette industry – valued at $1 billion per year – appeases smokers’ issues regarding health by removing the agents that are considered bad in real tobacco. [17] However, New York City has already banned e-cigarettes from public areas, as the city’s top health official claims they encourage the uptake of real cigarettes. [18] Using e-cigarettes as a replacement, people are able to distance themselves from the real reason they smoke: nicotine addiction. “Think about instances where we’re confronted with moral obligation,” says Ariely. “If the distance between ourselves and the issue is increasing, we don’t think about those obligations in the same way. We’re somehow blinded to them, and assume that everything is okay, even when it’s not.” [1]

But if we’re all doing bad things, why bother attempting to justify our actions? Because it’s better than identifying as a liar or a villain. “It’s a very negative state,” explains Ariely. “When I talk to big cheaters, it’s very interesting because they’ve done all kinds of awful things, and you look at what they’ve done and you say, ‘oh, I could never have never done that.’ But they never thought they could, either.” People want to believe that they’re good, and as Ariely aptly notes, “if you think of yourself as a bad person, why wouldn’t you just continue to behave badly?” [1]

The Betrayers' Banquet turns deceit into an intense social game The Betrayers' Banquet turns deceit into an intense social game
Will Edgecombe (2013) ©

Insights and opportunities
“Lying is important,” explains Ariely. “Living a perfectly truthful and honest life in everything you do is not necessarily the recipe for a healthy, prosperous life, but there’s a big distinction between some lies and others. So I might want my wife to care about my feelings, and maybe to even exaggerate a little bit here and there, but I don’t want my accountant to care about my feelings.” People are intrinsically irrational, and few things are starkly black or white. Ariely comments that a good example of someone who can benefit from the greys in between is a doctor with a dying patient: the right blend of lies and truth can equate to “a mixture of hopefulness and realism.” [1]

I might want my wife to care about my feelings, and maybe to even exaggerate a little bit here and there, but I don’t want my accountant to care about my feelings

Dan Ariely, behavioural economist (2014)

Not only do people sometimes benefit from dishonesty, but an increasing number enjoy it. Despite the fact people behave better when they’re being watched, the backlash from the NSA exposé proves that people don’t always want to be watched or, indeed, behave better. The Betrayers’ Banquet – a dining experience where patrons are rewarded with better food for tactful dishonesty – offers diners an incentive to be dishonest in a social situation where the consequences are part of the fun. Similarly, the cheerful reception to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street – a story of adultery, embezzlement and minimal remorse – is telling of the public appreciation for immoral or hedonistic lifestyles, even if they wouldn’t necessarily live that way themselves. [19] In both instances it’s worth noting that although people are revelling in debauchery and dishonesty, they do so without the risk of personally negative implications.

When it comes to personal decisions, though, people generally mean to be good. “We just need to give them an opportunity to do it,” Ariely explains. [1] The aforementioned grey area is all well and good, but in many cases it must be presented in a way that clearly explains what counts as right or wrong. In 2012, 279 Harvard students were subject to investigation for collaborating on a take-home exam, yet it quickly became apparent that the instructions and expectations were unclear, leading the students to stretch what they did and didn’t consider to be cheating. “Lack of clarity in expectations is a great instigator of dishonesty,” explains Ariely on his blog. “When no-one tells you what you can and can’t do, it becomes much easier to decide for yourself.” [20]

Ultimately, people still hate villains and love heroes, but the way we cast these roles is more fluid than ever. “What can you justify? What can be more easily justified?” asks Ariely. “When you think of the person you’re hurting as a ‘villain’ in some way, the justification is much easier – as when people rationalise that stealing from a big brand is better than stealing from an individual. The perception of evilness is a part of society in general.” And the way we cast these roles means that we refuse to cast ourselves as the villain – because it would justify others in causing us harm. [1] However dishonesty is rationalised, it differs depending on the situation, and the emotions attached to it. After all, as Ariely notes, “if people were perfectly rational, solutions would be extremely easy.” [1]

Key statistics
- McDonald’s and KFC are amongst the 20 most powerful brands in China because people trust them [4]
- 70% of the public considers illegal downloading as socially acceptable [12]
- The e-cigarette industry is valued at $1 billion per year [17]
- In 2012, 279 Harvard students were subject to investigation for collaborating on a take-home exam [20]

Related on Canvas8
‘Backchat: experimenting with anonymity’ (January 2014)
‘Sending the right message’ (January 2014)
‘Blackphone: how to evade the NSA’ (January 2014)
‘The Betrayers’ Banquet: cloak and dagger dining’ (November 2013)
‘Digital disclosure: the bear that makes people share’ (August 2013)
‘Who’s watching? Posters that fight bad behaviour’ (May 2013)

Related TABS
Conscience Confusion - Competing ethical demands are overwhelming consumers.
True Stories - Consumers seek honest brands with an authentic mission and an engaging personality.
Privacy and Control - A heightened awareness of the importance of controlling access to private data.

1. Interview with Dan Ariely conducted by author
2. ‘Russell Brand on revolution: “we no longer have the luxury of tradition”‘, New Statesman (October 2013)
3. ‘What it’s like when Reddit wrongly accuses your loved one of murder’, Business Insider (July 2013)
4. ‘KFC, McDonald’s among most powerful brands in China’, Restaurant News (July 2013)
5. ‘Why trust matters more than ever for brands’, Harvard Business Review (December 2011)
6. ‘Domino’s to provide “pizza theatre” at new Downtown store’, The Columbus Dispatch (January 2014)
7. ‘Jack Monroe to front Sainsbury’s ad campaign’, The Guardian (December 2013)
8. ‘International child porn ring on Facebook cracked by police’, The Huffington Post (August 2010)
9. ‘Instagram takes on Twitter with new private messages feature’, The Guardian (December 2013)
10. ‘WhatsApp overtakes Facebook as number one choice for social messaging on mobile’, The Drum (December 2013)
11. ‘Surveillance cameras could make us better people’, The Atlantic (June 2012)
12. ‘70% of the public finds piracy socially acceptable’, Torrent Freak (February 2011)
13. ‘Top 49 most influential men’, AskMen (2009)
14. ‘Jaguar 2014 big game commercial | British villains rendezvous’, YouTube (January 2014)
15. ‘Who’s watching? Posters that fight bad behaviour’, Canvas8 (May 2013)
16. ‘Secret-sharing app Whisper is nearing three billion monthly pageviews because it does something Facebook can’t’, Business Insider (December 2013)
17. ‘E-cigarettes just passed the $1 billion sales mark’, Business Insider (August 2013)
18. ‘Tobacco’s gateway drug? New York says e-cigarettes are not OK’, Wall Street Journal (December 2013)
19. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street, review: Scorsese’s best film in 20 years’, The Telegraph (January 2014)
20. ‘Harvard and the politics of large-scale cheating’, Dan Ariely (September 2012)