Truth is, we all lie: Here’s why
As a well-loved television character puts it, everybody lies.

MANILA, Philippines – Glancing at your seatmate’s test paper to “validate” your answer to math problem #5. The taxi driver apologizing for not having exact change for your P100 when, in fact, he does. Telling your friend you’re already on your way to your dinner when you haven’t even left home yet.

White lies — they seem small, innocuous, harmless, beneficial even, we argue. We also think everyone lies a little every now and then. Now, studies have proven that yes, we all do cheat and lie, but researchers found out that factors for being dishonest aren’t what conventional wisdom would dictate.

In an essay in the Wall Street Journal, Dan Ariely, a professor of Behavior Economics at Duke University in the United States, explored why people lie, using science.

Ariely wrote that based on studies he and his colleagues have conducted in the past decade or so, all of us can be dishonest, and that nearly all of us exercise that ability in our everyday lives, sometimes in big ways, but mostly in small things.

He wrote in his essay, part of his forthcoming book “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone–Especially Ourselves,” that we are motivated to cheat to benefit ourselves; on the other hand, he writes, “we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people.”

In their study, Ariely and his colleagues used a “matrix task” to determine what factors would cause people to cheat (or not). Test subjects are asked to find in several matrices of numbers the pairs that would add up to 10. The test subjects are then paid according to the number of pairs they find within 5 minutes.

They found out that in regular conditions (that is, when the test subjects’ work can be checked), people solved an average of 4 matrices; but when their answers are shredded and they are asked afterwards for their answers, they claimed to solve two more on the average.

The researchers tried hiking up the reward money from 50 cents to $10, and surprise — there was more or less the same level of cheating. In other experiments, they tried other conditions like increasing probability of getting caught, but it did not change things.

This showed, Ariely wrote, that the amount of money at stake or the possibility of being caught did not affect people’s propensity to be dishonest, and he said it “does not correspond to traditional, rational model of human behavior.”

They also found out people will cheat more under these conditions:

  • Rewards are harder to be achieved (what he calls “distant” payoff prospects);
  • When other people are already cheating — “Cheating, it seems, is infectious;”
  • When people are wearing or using knockoffs — this shows the person is comfortable pushing ethical limits;
  • When the person becomes tired doing a mentally difficult task;
  • The “Robin Hood” mentality — doing something thinking other people will benefit from it;
  • Being creative and the ability to rationalize dishonesty.


“These factors have little to do with cost-benefit analysis and everything to do with the balancing act that we are constantly performing in our heads,” Ariely said.

The study also revealed that indeed, “very few people steal to a maximum degree, but many good people cheat just a little here and there.”

However, cheating in the little things is more damaging than, say, a government official hiding assets, or a businessman ripping off his customers of millions of pesos, Ariely said. He noted these small forms of lying and cheating are more dangerous, since science has proven that the behavior can spread and can “grease the psychological skid to larger ones” — larger ones that will be more damaging to society overall.

What, then, can push people to be more honest? The researchers found out that there are “tricks” that can minimize dishonest behavior.

For example, having “moral reminders,” such as the simple physical presence of an honor code, the Bible, or the Ten Commandments in the room, can decrease dishonesty drastically.

“While ethics lectures and training seem to have little to no effect on people, reminders of morality — right at the point where people are making a decision — appear to have an outsize effect on behavior,” he wrote.

Other “strategies” include honor pledges, the placement of signatures before filling up forms, and, of course, supervision, can move the needle towards honesty. Despite this, the researchers said that they still encountered “aggressive cheaters” in their experiments, but were few and far in between.

It is still important to stay vigilant against big-time, brazen acts of dishonesty, said Ariely, but people should be more concerned about the good people slipping and giving in to small temptations every day.

In the short term, the taxi driver may earn a few pesos more; you may have 3 points more in your math exam; you may be forgiven for running late because you can cite “traffic jams” along the way.

In the end, however, you — and society — will end up paying a larger price for these small, seemingly inconsequential transgressions. –

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