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The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves

The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely. HarperCollins Publishers, 2012, 304 pp.

Cheating is a scary word in a profession built on honor. Indeed, "Integrity First" is listed at the top of the Air Force's core values because of the fact that honor turns an Airman's daily work into a profession. Part of putting integrity first, though, involves understanding what drives people to put it somewhere else. Dan Ariely's The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-Especially Ourselves asks questions designed to shed light on why cheating occurs. The result is a collection of surprising anecdotes about how frequently people cheat and what drives them to do so (thankfully, the incriminating evidence of our tendency toward cheating applies only to "other people," not the reader). The lessons of Ariely's book serve as a worthwhile aid to the Air Force's ongoing journey to put "Integrity First."

The author first asks whether the decision to cheat is based on a rational cost-benefit analysis. The Simple Model of Rational Crime (SMORC) assumes that humans evaluate whether to cheat by comparing a payoff with the likelihood of getting caught and the expected punishment. To test SMORC’s accuracy, he gave students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) a "matrix quiz" that asked them to solve a series of math problems in five minutes. The problems were not difficult; however, they were time consuming, and the time allotted was not sufficient to solve them. Students were paid for each correct answer. Under the “noncheating” condition, students turned in their answer sheets once time expired. Under the "cheating" condition, students were asked to shred their answer sheets before reporting their number of correct answers. They could report as many correct responses as they desired and not be caught in a lie.

Although the students had an incentive to cheat (a payout for correct answers) and no expected cost (they shredded the evidence themselves), they did not cheat as much as they could have. Under the noncheating condition, the students averaged 4 correct problems out of 20. Under the cheating condition, however, they reported seven correct answers on average. This increase was not the result of a few "bad apples" who claimed 20 out of 20 correct but the fact that almost everyone claimed to have completed a few more than the average under the noncheating condition.

This pattern held even as Dr. Ariely changed the payout for a correct answer. Some variations of the study paid as little as $.25 and others, as much as $10. Contrary to the SMORC model, cheating actually decreased slightly at the highest payout amounts.

As an alternative explanation to SMORC, Ariely proposes an identity-based model for cheating, summarized in this question: Can you look yourself in the mirror after cheating and still count yourself honest? He labels the extent to which we can cheat and maintain our honest identity as a "personal fudge factor." Here he asks another simple question: How do we shrink the fudge factor?

Ariely asked a group of students to recall the Ten Commandments prior to taking the matrix quiz while he asked another group to recall 10 books they had read in high school. He found that regardless of the person's religious beliefs, the act of recalling the Ten Commandments before the quiz eliminated cheating. Recalling 10 books from high school had no effect. The reminder that morality mattered to the students, in the moment before the quiz, was enough to eliminate cheating. He found the same to be true of honor statements. With groups of students at MIT and Yale, he included a signing statement with the quiz: "I understand that this experiment falls under the guidelines of the MIT/Yale honor code." Students not asked to sign cheated the standard amount, but those who signed did not cheat at all. Given that MIT and Yale do not have honor codes, he found these results surprising. Again, the act of reminding students that an ethical guideline applied to the quiz seemed to be all that was necessary to prevent cheating.

This "moral reminder" effect, however, was limited to the moment before the quiz. Ariely compared the effects of an honor statement with those of an in-depth honor-education course for first-year Princeton students. Waiting until two weeks after the honor code training concluded, Ariely administered his test. He found that the thorough education at Princeton had no effect on how much students cheated. The ethical training was not fresh enough in the students' minds to change their behavior.

This last experiment is cause for examining our own service's education of Airmen in the core values. The intense honor education of Princeton could be equivalent to the weeks-long education of basic military training or commissioning education. The two-week break in Ariely's experiment could be equivalent to the break between a training environment and the operational Air Force. Whereas training environments schedule time for discussing the core values, they may fade from the front of our minds in the operational Air Force because we focus on accomplishing the mission. As we find ourselves further removed from discussions of integrity's importance in the profession of arms, rationalizing dishonesty may well become easier for us. For "Integrity First" to remain an authentic statement for our service, discussing the core values should become part of regular operations.

The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty is filled with other lessons as well. Ariely's list of questions asks what effect supervision has on cheating and how fatigue affects the decision to cheat, each of which could inform Air Force leaders. "Integrity First" is not a statement of fact but an ideal toward which we strive. Successfully making the journey depends on an understanding of integrity, ourselves, and the relationship between the two. The Honest Truth about Dishonesty is mental fuel for the journey.

Capt Brad R. DeWees, USAF
US Air Force Academy
Colorado Springs, Colorado

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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