Feeling tense or melancholy? Got a sore throat or headache? Now: How many times have you stretched the truth this week? A new study finds lying is linked to mental health and physical ailments.
Researchers at the University of Notre Dame found most Americans lie about 11 times a week. They studied a group of 110 people from age 18 to 71 and asked half the group to reduce their lying over a 10-week period. Those participants who stopped lying -- exaggerating their accomplishments, making false excuses for being late and evading uncomfortable questions -– had a significant improvement in their health. Their social interactions also went more smoothly, the study found.
Still, radical honesty isn't always ideal in relationships. “A level of dishonesty is important in social life,” argues social scientist Dan Ariely, author of the new book “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone--Especially Ourselves.”
Ariely said the book emerged from his realization that “there are many important human values that are not always compatible,” he said. “What happens when you have two human values that contradict each other? ‘Honey, how do I look in this dress?’ The moment is about not hurting other people, keeping the peace, saving face, [protecting] someone’s ego.”
But when it comes to the public realm, it's best to view ethical choices in strict, black and white terms. His research has found that more serious ethical failures -- scams, corruption, infidelity -- often stem from an irrational impulse rather than a thoughtful cost-benefit analysis. The key is not to ask ourselves if we’re capable of insider trading on a massive scale –- but if we could make the first move on a slippery slope, and trade on a stock on a tip from someone in the know.
“Many times we look at people who have misbehaved and we say we could never have taken that journey,” he said. ”But that person … probably thought about the first step only. You have to ask yourself if you could have taken the first step, because [it] changes [you] and you take the next step and then the next step. That’s a realistic version of a lot of the misconduct. That’s why it’s lot more dangerous because it creeps up on you.” Creative people, he found, lie more often because they’re better at rationalizing that first step.
Our propensity to misbehave also depends on our social environment. “We have a notion we know what’s right and wrong but the truth is that it’s friends and people around us who tell us what’s right and wrong by example, and we are incredibly susceptible to those things,” he said. “I’m guessing almost everyone was shocked by Tiger Woods. But ask yourself, where does Tiger woods learn about what’s right and wrong? People probably treated him from very young age as someone who doesn’t belong in ordinary society; every interaction with normal people tells him he’s not like them; then he has friends who are athletes who have mistresses. How can a person in that way have our sense of what’s right and wrong?”
Meanwhile, merely reminding people of moral standards can be enough to improve moral behavior. In one experiment, Ariely asked one group of participants to try to recall the Ten Commandments, then gave them a task on which it was easy to cheat. None did. Minor cheating was relatively widespread in a control group that simply went straight to the task.
In addition, conflicts of interest create a perfect storm of dishonesty. The shenanigans of financial planners who put clients’ money into poor-performing investments on which the planners make a hefty commission have been well documented. But less well-known are medical conflicts of interest: In one experiment, Ariely found that the longer the relationship a patient had with a dentist, the more likely they were to choose a more expensive course of treatment.
“You can have a fantastic dentist or financial advisor and they’re all on the PTA with you and they have kids who play with your kids. But if they stand to gain more for one product over another they will have a hard time seeing through that,” Ariely said. “The conflicts of interest run deep because we have best practices which are defined by people in that profession who stand to gain financially. I think it’s incredibly important to think about their incentives and when should you go for second opinions. ”
Ariely says the solution is to set crystal clear boundaries –- no gray zones –- in accounting, politics and other areas in which we value honesty. “It’s amazing how many smart people text and drive,” he said by example. “They say, ‘I only do it at red lights’ –- then it switches to, ‘I stop, but then I keep on a little bit just to finish the sentence.’ People convince themselves it’s OK. [Saying] ‘I only do it at a red light' it’s not really clear what it is -– what if you drive slowly? Rolling stop? You need very strict rules -– and it’s not about other people it’s about ourselves.
“Alcoholics Anonymous got it right,” he added. “Why is it no drinking at all? Why can’t the rule be ‘not more than half a glass a day’? Because we know it’s really open to interpretation. ‘No drinks’ is an incredibly strict rule but now you know if you’re on the right side or wrong side. Every time we have a gray zone we can interpret things in all kinds of ways, and we’re going to take advantage of it because we follow impulsive, selfish motivations in the short-term.”