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Duke Professor Dan Ariely: ‘Why do we tell lies?’

<re taught early in life that lying is “wrong,” and yet we do it nearly every day, often times unaware. So what are the true repercussions of fibbing?

On Feb. 9, psychologist and bestselling author Dan Ariely presented a lecture titled, “Free Beer: The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, How We Lie To Everyone – Especially Ourselves.”

Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. A highly acclaimed author, his 2008 book “Predictably Irrational,” is a New York Times bestseller.

“We were delighted to have him here, of course,” said Professor Neil Lutsky, chair of the psychology department. “His work occupies the intersection between cognitive and social psychology on the one hand, and economics on the other.”
There was a considerable turnout at the event, as students and faculty swarmed the Olin lecture hall. Several who attended had already been exposed to Ariely’s research through classes and other media.

Helen Strnad ’14 had read Ariely’s book and was familiar with his work.

“Ariely is one of my favorite authors because he manages to write intellectually stimulating works that are fun enough to make you feel like you’re pleasure reading,” she said.

Ariely eased into the presentation with humor, starting with his explanation of the “free beer” title and an anecdote regarding an experiment he conducted when he first arrived in the United States.

Not knowing much about laws on alcohol, he provided beer to college freshmen, ranging from light American to dark German beers. He asked the students to tell him which beer they preferred by first looking at the brand of beer and then by blind tasting.

For the freshmen, those two measures were “negatively correlated.”

According to Ariely, people often have generalized ideas of what they should like that don’t always correspond to their actual preferences.

The idea of “conflicts of interest” carries over into almost all choices made in life. Ariely discussed the theories of Gary Becker, a conservative columnist who argued that these choices are much like “making a cost-benefit analysis.” According to Becker, such forms of decision-making contribute to the “rational theory of crime.” People tend to self-rationalize their actions, weighing all possible consequences and subsequently deciding a course of action.

“Maybe what’s going on is that people are trying to balance two forces,” Ariely said. People generally like making profit, but at the same time, they want to retain a positive self-image.

But according to Ariely, due to humans’ “cognitive flexibility,” people can reason that if they cheat only “a little,” they can still retain a good self-image.

In another experiment, he found that in contexts reminding people of moral virtue, people cheated less. This sense of morality, however, seemed to only carry over short-term – such as right after signing off on an honor code.

Some personality traits may also contribute to a higher propensity to cheat. Creativity may be one of these traits, as cheating requires the ability to conjure stories that will satisfy people’s conscience.

This finding surprised Yuki Tominaga ‘14.

“Never having thought that creativity can influence the level of cheating,” she said, “I was inspired by the very idea.”
Ariely also found that cheating appeared to correspond cross-culturally, as no country was any more or less morally inclined than another. The way people approached cheating was more or less congruent across cultures.

According to Ariely’s studies, the repercussions of lying may be far greater than just a loose translation of the truth.
To lie to someone else may essentially be to fool oneself and may ultimately impede one’s ability to think rationally. It affects not only relationships but also humans’ mode of existence.

Liars beware.

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