Ariely’s Mental Model on Dishonesty

Dan Ariely is always worth reading and I picked up The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty over the Christmas break and it did not disappoint. The key findings of Ariely’s work in this area are summarised in the following diagram, which lists some of the factors and forces that are shown through experimental studies to shape dishonesty, both positively and negatively.


It’s worth noting that Ariely and his collaborators were mostly interested in understanding factors that drive people to engage in minor, day-to-day dishonesty as opposed to deliberate, outright deception practiced by scheming fraudsters. In that sense, this book can be understood as another body of research to help us understand how our brain can be compromised into performing dishonest acts, usually in a not completely conscious manner.

Several of the factors that increase dishonesty like “Watching others behave dishonestly” and “Culture that gives examples of dishonesty” are associated with societal or cultural context and can be used to explain the generally higher level of dishonesty among certain professions like sales people and Wall-streeters.

I’m particularly interested in the link between creativity and dishonesty. Creative people are generally good at joining dots and making inferences from partial knowledge. In their mind, there is sometimes only a very thin line, if one exists at all, separating known established facts and beliefs inferred from other known facts that are only true with some probability. In putting forward these inferred beliefs, there are many situations — being depleted (one of the factors listed in Ariely’s diagram) and overly confident (a trait associated with creative people) — under which the uncertainty associated with those beliefs will be underplayed, leading often to an unintentional but still dishonest portrayal of a situation. A creative person that does this one too many times, even unconsciously, can become discredited.

I know of many creative people who satisfy the above description. I have certainly caught myself committing this mental error on a few occasions, especially when other factors that increase dishonesty are also present. If you’re such a creative person, it’s worth studying carefully the few techniques listed in Ariely’s diagram above that have been shown to be effective in decreasing dishonesty, including moral reminders and supervision. Do them voluntarily and diligently and maybe it’s possible to be creative and still be someone with great integrity. 🙂




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