Behavioral economist Dan Ariely hit an anthropological home run in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend with “Why We Lie,” a preview of his ridiculously well-titled upcoming book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves. (You can watch the Predicatably Irrational author’s wonderful TED talk here). What Ariely and his team of researchers have uncovered will come as no surprise to those familiar with the New Testament: everyone lies, everyone is both perpetrator and victim in this respect, lying is primarily an emotional phenomenon (as opposed to a rational one), the basis of which is a mix of identity-related fear and good old fashioned greed. Moreover, we all fabricate elaborate hierarchies to minimize and rationalize our misdoing (and preserve our righteousness), thereby increasing it.

The considerably more interesting findings have to do with the factors that have been found to influence dishonest behavior. Threat of punishment, it would appear, has little to no bearing on whether or not a person lies — at least when it comes to the minor things (“white lies”), which Ariely claims are ultimately much more endemic and damaging. A timely reminder of a moral code, however, even one that a person might not ascribe to, has a far greater impact. Perhaps this is the difference between a preemptive scolding and a supportive reminder; one assumes guilt and the other conveys goodness. You might say there’s a slight imputative element at work (you might not). Or maybe it’s more that one method has an undeniable if-then component, while the other is more descriptive. Regardless, the two approaches are clearly being received differently. It’s interesting stuff, to say the least, and a bit ironic that Ariely ends the article with precisely such an injunction! Then, again, the book is about self-deception… ht KM, CP, BM, JW, CR, CW, VH:

We tend to think that people are either honest or dishonest. In the age of Bernie Madoff and Mark McGwire, James Frey and John Edwards, we like to believe that most people are virtuous, but a few bad apples spoil the bunch. If this were true, society might easily remedy its problems with cheating and dishonesty. Human-resources departments could screen for cheaters when hiring. Dishonest financial advisers or building contractors could be flagged quickly and shunned. Cheaters in sports and other arenas would be easy to spot before they rose to the tops of their professions.

But that is not how dishonesty works. Over the past decade or so, my colleagues and I have taken a close look at why people cheat, using a variety of experiments and looking at a panoply of unique data sets—from insurance claims to employment histories to the treatment records of doctors and dentists. What we have found, in a nutshell: Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little. Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society.

Much of what we have learned about the causes of dishonesty comes from a simple little experiment that we call the “matrix task,” which we have been using in many variations. It has shown rather conclusively that cheating does not correspond to the traditional, rational model of human behavior—that is, the idea that people simply weigh the benefits (say, money) against the costs (the possibility of getting caught and punished) and act accordingly.

Knowing that most people cheat—but just by a little—the next logical question is what makes us cheat more or less. One thing that increased cheating in our experiments was making the prospect of a monetary payoff more “distant,” in psychological terms… Another thing that boosted cheating: Having another student in the room who was clearly cheating… Cheating, it seems, is infectious.

The results of these experiments should leave you wondering about the ways that we currently try to keep people honest. Does the prospect of heavy fines or increased enforcement really make someone less likely to cheat on their taxes, to fill out a fraudulent insurance claim, to recommend a bum investment or to steal from his or her company? It may have a small effect on our behavior, but it is probably going to be of little consequence when it comes up against the brute psychological force of “I’m only fudging a little” or “Everyone does it” or “It’s for a greater good.”

In the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments [before an experiment], we observed no cheating whatsoever. We reran the experiment, reminding students of their schools’ honor codes instead of the Ten Commandments, and we got the same result. We even reran the experiment on a group of self-declared atheists, asking them to swear on a Bible, and got the same no-cheating results yet again.

This experiment has obvious implications for the real world. 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.

All of this means that, although it is obviously important to pay attention to flagrant misbehaviors, it is probably even more important to discourage the small and more ubiquitous forms of dishonesty—the misbehavior that affects all of us, as both perpetrators and victims. This is especially true given what we know about the contagious nature of cheating and the way that small transgressions can grease the psychological skids to larger ones.

We want to install locks to stop the next Bernie Madoff, the next Enron, the next steroid-enhanced all-star, the next serial plagiarist, the next self-dealing political miscreant. But locking our doors against the dishonest monsters will not keep them out; they will always cheat their way in. It is the woman down the hallway—the sweet one who could not even carry away your flat-screen TV if she wanted to—who needs to be reminded constantly that, even if the door is open, she cannot just walk in and “borrow” a cup of sugar without asking.