Sunday, August 6, 2017

Book Report: The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” ~ Richard Feynman, Cal Tech, 1974.

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves is a book by Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. Throughout the book, Ariely tries to teach his readers about honesty and dishonesty so that they can become more ethical beings. People generally assume that others lie while they alone consistently tell the truth, and so the first thing that they need to learn, he suggests, is how not to fool themselves any longer. Being truthful and avoiding lies are things that people need to work at doing, by understanding what kinds of psychological impulses and situations lead them into temptation and working out mechanisms for combatting these things. Ariely starts from a position that we are all fallible and that we should not be arrogant and superior towards each other because we all need to deal with the same issues regarding honesty and dishonesty.

The work is divided up into different chapters that each focus on different aspect of people’s lives, and the different situations that can lead people to lie. Ariely tells a short story at the outset of each chapter based upon his own experience. These are sometimes funny, and so they help the reader engage with the topic being discussed because the stories draw you in, and, usually, makes you feel more comfortable about acknowledging the trait or lapse that others have also engaged in. This seems to be his way of getting the reader to see that they might have been fooling themselves, and allows them not to feel bad about this. He then goes into detailed explanations for this behavior and provides a lot of data and analysis helping the reader to assess the relevance of the condition he is describing to his or her own life. Personally, I liked this approach and it made reading the book a lot easier than I thought it would be. When you pick up a book like this, you think it is going to be preachy and judgmental, but The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty was anything but this!

One of my favorite topics within the book was in Chapter 7 where Ariely discussed “The Liar’s Brain.” Here he cited a study where researchers were looking to study the brains of pathological liars. In this study, one-on-one interviews were conducted with people who worked at a temporary employment agency in Los Angeles (the researchers figured that people who can’t hold jobs must be more likely to be pathological liars!). Interviews were also conducted with the friends, coworkers, and family of the interviewees in order to identify any discrepancies within their answers. The researchers were able to identify 12 pathological liars within a group of 108 job seekers. Then, out of the group of 108, 21 people who were not found to be pathological liars (the control group) were given brain scans to determine how much grey and white matter were in the prefrontal cortex of their brains (this part of our brains works on higher order thinking, such as decision making and distinguishing between right and wrong); the 12 pathological liars were also given the same brain scans. We have both grey matter and white matter in our brains – grey matter is responsible for powering our thinking, and white matter is responsible for the “wiring” that connects those brain cells. So…the scans were compared, and the researchers found that the pathological liars had 14% less grey matter than the control group. They also found they had 22 to 26% more white matter. So maybe pathological liars are pathological liars because they have less grey matter and less of an ability to make moral judgments? Also, Ariely suggests that the white matter could also make it easier to lie, as the more connectivity one has, the more a person can figure out ways to explain away their lies! The first person I though of after reading this was our current president, who is known to lie with abandon!

A real-world problem relating to dishonesty, which leads me again to our current president, is the phenomenon of fake news. And this isn’t just fake news, as in President Trump’s touting of “fake news” to confuse people and cover for many of his easily proven lies and dishonesties (does he have less grey matter?). This fake news is real, and it feels like what we as a society are currently dealing with is only the beginning of a long stretch blatantly manipulative dishonesty within many facets of the media. A study recently released in the journal News Media and Society, “The Agenda Setting Power of Fake News: A Big Data Analysis of the Online Media Landscape From 2014 -2016” indicates that “content from fake news is increasing,” and what’s even worse is that this study reveals that people who attempt to fact check these media sites inadvertently increase the fake news media circulation, which then rewards these fake news outlets and then reinforces the perpetuation of fake news! And this is not only happening with regard to what we read; it’s also happening with what we see. See the article and video below on how researchers at the University of Washington are successfully creating fake videos of politicians. Will the fact checking of these kinds of videos also reward and reinforce this kind of fake news? I hope not, because if it does we’re in big trouble:

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