Robert D. Mather, Ph.D.

The Conservative Social Psychology Blog
The Utility of Lying: NPR Hidden Brain Podcast

A recent podcast of an older interview with psychological scientist Dr. Dan Areily from March 2017 (NPR Hidden Brain Podcast, February 17, 2020) is fascinating. Areily outlines the general findings of his extensive experimental research about lying.


His work highlights the fact that people tend to behave honestly as a default, following moral norms. He gives examples of people who call restaurants to pay when they have forgotten to do so, and in other work he has discussed how the honor system is sometimes more effective for inducing compliance than a system that is punitive.


Another finding is that opportunity is one of the largest determinants of whether someone lies or cheats at something, with escalation of commitment as the mechanism that can lead a person to deeply break rules. He gives an example of a man who started out with an injury which led to a progressive chain of small commitments that resulted in that man being arrested for drug trafficking. As we have seen in the Milgram conformity experiments, it is easy to end up at an extreme when you have a track record of accepting small requests. If I flipped the last 10 switches, why wouldn’t I flip the next one?


Based on his empirical research, Areily proposes that we should induce an honesty mindset from the beginning of a process. Thus, it implies that we should have the oath statements of “I swear to tell the whole truth, so help me God” at beginning of the process rather than swearing confirmation of facts at the end. That induces a mindset of honesty that colors the entire transaction. I suggest that both are useful.


He also discussed the usefulness of self-deception, while acknowledging that there are consequences. For him, as a severe burn victim, self-deception played a role in his successful recovery.


Perhaps the most interesting is his finding that it’s not risk takers or intelligent people who cheat more. It’s creative people who cheat more because “Cheating is all about being able to tell a story about why what we want is actually OK.”

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