Behavioural economist Dan Ariely reveals the primary reason people lie and cheat

If we want to prevent dishonesty, especially in the workplace, it’s important to learn why people lie and cheat in the first place.

According to Dan Ariely, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, it helps to understand that there are certain contexts in which lying and cheating can be useful. The same behaviour that would be considered unethical or even illegal at work might be beneficial in a social setting.

Ariely’s research on dishonesty helped inspire the documentary film “Dishonesty: The Truth About Lies,” which was co-created by Yael Melamede and will be released Friday. We sat down with Ariely and Melamede to learn more about why we lie, even though we know it’s wrong.

According to Ariely, dishonesty is almost always caused by a conflict of interest.

For example, say a reporter covering a particular company is friends with the CEO of that organisation. As he’s writing the article, he’d encounter a conflict of interest between his allegiance to his friend and his allegiance to the publication.

If the reporter fabricated or even just exaggerated parts of the story to make his CEO friend look better, the reporter could understandably be fired.

But the fact that the reporter wanted to help the CEO suggests that the reporter is empathetic and capable of seeing the world from someone else’s perspective — which are certainly positive attributes.

“You wouldn’t want to live in a world where we didn’t have this capacity for empathy and caring,” Ariely said. “But you mix it with business — now you have a real big problem.”

Part of the issue is that sometimes we’re not fully aware of our conflicting interests.

“We do have these biases and incentives, and we don’t see how they operate on us,” Ariely said. “And because of that we behave badly.”

That’s why some business organisations have rules in place to minimise the influences of those biases. A reporter probably wouldn’t be allowed to cover a company if he was friendly with the CEO.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that the temptation to lie and cheat is part of being a thinking, feeling human.

Dishonesty, Ariely said, “is something basic to our nature. And it’s not 100% bad.”

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