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What makes us lie and cheat and what we can do about it

Published: Tuesday, March 11 2014 9:45 p.m. MDT

Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and author of "Predictably Irrational," "The Upside of Irrationality" and, most recently, "The Honest Truth about Dishonesty."

Les Todd, Duke University

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Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and author of "Predictably Irrational," "The Upside of Irrationality" and, most recently, "The Honest Truth about Dishonesty." He studies irrational behavior and during a recent visit to Salt Lake City, Ariely sat down with the Deseret News to talk about the many ways in which we deceive others — especially ourselves — and how recognizing that can and should change our behavior.

DN: In your newest book, you talk a lot about dishonesty and how it relates to irrationally. What was the most interesting thing for you about dishonesty?

DA: Conflicts of interest are incredibly interesting to me, because I think they're everywhere. I think we're creating more of them, sometimes purposefully almost. And then our inability to recognize them. If you think about what makes something irrational dangerous is that it happens and we don't see it. … And because of that, I think we're designing some really bad systems. Think about lobbying. It's one of the best investments in the U.S., and the reason for that is people are cheap. And I don't mean that people intentionally sell themselves. The wonderful part of human nature is that we make friends easily. Someone invites you for a drink, sandwich, all of a sudden you like them more, and you see life from their perspective, and it's really quite wonderful. … But when think about OK, now they're business interested, now things are becoming much more complex.

DN: You talk about when individuals are annoyed or depleted, tired, they make less rational decisions, more dishonest decisions. If people read this book and learn that, how does that change their behavior, or does that immediately change and how long does the change last?

DA: The depletion part is interesting because it tells you two things. First it tells you that the hours in the day when you should face your moral decisions are probably in the morning. And you can do that always. … Other thing that is more tricky, it tells you that when you make decisions, even if you make the right decision, the temptation itself created a cost. Imagine that your morning is full of temptation: muffin, croissant, Facebook, YouTube, saying something nasty to your boss, the morning is just full of temptation. And you've been able to resist of all that, good for you, but by the time you've resisted all of them, you've already paid the price. And the price you've paid is the price of depletion. So temptation is tough to deal with, but temptation has also this consequential cost that comes later that we don't see. You could be a great person overcoming temptation, but you'd be much better off not facing this temptation to start with.

DN: So how do parents set up a home to help promote morality and rational decisions among their children who are often very irrational?

DA: Let's start with adults. Think about your refrigerator. I'm sure you try to eat healthy, you buy fruits and vegetables, and I'm almost certain you have fruits and vegetables rotting in your refrigerator on a daily basis even though you paid quite a lot of money for them. And the reason is, it's a bad design. So what happens is we take the fruits, vegetables and put them in the bottom drawer and make it opaque. Then we take soda and put it in the easiest place to reach. So you open the refrigerator and ask yourself, "What do I want?" Your eyes gravitate to what's at eye level and easy to reach. … Think about other aspects of the home. If you put the TV in front of the most comfortable sofa in the home, what are the odds that people would sit there and not turn it on? Not very high. … One of the things I like a lot about behavioral economics is this obsessive attention to details. It's those little details that are important.

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