Illustration by Ping Zhu

Ever hear the joke about the kid who comes home from school with a note from his teacher? He’s in trouble for stealing a pencil from the boy sitting beside him. His dad is furious. “Why would you steal a pencil? It’s wrong,” says Dad. “If you need a pencil, just tell me. I have dozens of pencils I can bring home from the office!” 

This is just one of Dan Ariely’s anecdotes—sometimes raunchy, sometimes biblical—illustrating how easy it is to rationalize one’s own dishonesty. During a lecture at Barnard’s Diana Center, Ariely, who is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, shared some of his fascinating experiments designed to make sense of why humans act the way they do. His bestselling books, Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, explore the notion that we are not as reasonable as we may think. His latest book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves, offers insights into how and why we all regularly lie or cheat, sometimes without even thinking about it. 

Ariely is among the growing ranks of thinkers, authors, and speakers—among them Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point), Steven Levitt (Freakonomics), and Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow)—bringing economic concepts to popular culture. To understand the professor fully is to experience him as a personality. He only started writing research-based books to garner interest in the experimental cookbook he’s wanted to write for years—Dining Without Crumbs: The Art of Eating Over the Kitchen Sink is his next project. But his engaging research and creative storytelling struck a nerve. A favorite on lecture circuits, millions of people have watched Ariely’s TED talks and other videos on YouTube. He writes the “Ask Dan Ariely” advice column for The Wall Street Journal, and is the founder of a research organization called The Center for Advanced Hindsight. One online fan sums up the appeal: Ariely is the kind of guy you want to hang out with. His heartbreaking backstory of suffering third-degree burns over much of his body as a young man still informs his work. The painful and often irrational treatments he was forced to endure led to an interest in human behaviors and motivations. 

He began his Diana Center lecture with some rational questions that people rarely ask themselves: “How many people have lied in 2012?” and “Have you lied in the past week?” Many members of the crowd kept hands raised for both questions. “The reality is we lie a lot,” he said. “At the same time, how many of you think of yourselves in general as wonderful, honest people? Probably most of us.”

“Today it’s easy for us to be dishonest to a larger degree without thinking of ourselves as bad people,” he added. Our dishonesty is not always rational. Most of us would never walk out of a restaurant without paying the check, for example, but many routinely download music from the Internet without paying for it. Sometimes cost/benefit analysis factors into such behavior: What will I get away with? How much will it cost me? Will I get caught? Other times it doesn’t. During his talk, he cited an example of the headline-making former CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus, who obviously didn’t do a cost-benefit analysis while making decisions regarding his affair: The costs were far greater than the benefits.

In an attempt to measure dishonesty, Ariely’s team of researchers conducts experiments around the world, visiting university campuses, corporate offices, bars; they even have a mobile research vehicle in North Carolina, which roams churches and county fairs. One primary experiment involves a math quiz in which participants can earn money for each completed answer in a short amount of time. “At the end I tell people to stop, pencils down, and tell me how many questions you got correctly. Then shred your paper at the back of the room,” he said. At $5 per correct question with no one checking the answers, participants have the incentive and the opportunity for dishonesty. A rigged shredder helps his team compare what people claim with the truth. What the researchers find is that most people are a little bit dishonest. “People told me they got 6 questions correct. We found that most people got 4 questions correct,” he said. 

Offering more money for each correct answer doesn’t increase the cheating rate. In fact, at $10 per answer, cheating decreases slightly, only to go back up at the $15 mark. Geography doesn’t matter much: Aside from cultural differences, the moral fiber in the United States is no different from that of China, Turkey, Israel (where Ariely was raised), Canada, and so on. What about the difference between men and women respondents? The difference, says Ariely, is that women always ask him that question, men don’t. One thing that does consistently change behaviors is making people think about morality beforehand. When the test begins with participants being asked to sign an unrelated honor code or to name all Ten Commandments, no one cheats on the quiz. Ariely thinks this valuable information, and has offered this research to organizations that commonly deal with cheaters, such as insurance companies and even the Internal Revenue Service. 

There is a tremendous societal and economic impact when good people cheat without thinking about it. During his talk, he posed the question: What’s scarier—outrageous con artists like investor Bernard Madoff, or the hundreds of seemingly decent people who were being paid a lot of money to believe and tout the benefits of investing in mortgage-backed securities? “Sure, there are some big cheaters out there and you should worry about them,” he said. “But the greater economic impact of cheating is done by a lot of people who cheat a little.”

In the end, the good news for optimists is that we are more honest than economic theory would predict. Based on his observations, Ariely affirmed, “It’s really admirable how many opportunities for dishonesty we don’t take.”