You are all liars…especially if you work in advertising!

Black And White Pointing Hand Finger

Oh and those creative types! They are biggest liars in the world! Don’t look at me! I work in advertising too and I think I am very creative…but I guess I am the exception! 😇 This is all research backed by the way, in case you are wondering. Dishonesty has something to do with our prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for higher-order rational thinking, the one that makes moral judgements and helps us deal with temptation. For this particular research the focus was on pathological liars and the composition of their prefrontal cortex. Typically the brain is a mix of gray matter – the neurons that power our thinking, and white matter – the wiring that connects these brain cells. Pathological liars have 14% less gray matter in this part of the brain than your average joe. What is that extra space filled with then? Marbles? No, the empty space is filled with white matter. Pathological liars have 22 to 26% more white matter as well. With less gray matter in the prefrontal cortex they are more susceptible to lying. Add to this a dense network of white matter and you have a brain that experiences better connectivity between all of it’s parts, thus making you more creative. Like pathological liars, creative people have more white matter as well. As they say an idea is simply a new connection of two existing elements. The more unexpected the connection the fresher the idea. And this is where having more white matter helps. It makes it easier to form new connections. But then what does creativity have to do with lying? Pathological liars are also good storytellers. Storytelling you see is a creative function and liars need to be good at telling stories. Of course, just because your brain is wired in a certain way, may make you more creative but it doesn’t necessarily make you a liar. Or does it? This is where it gets complicated.

Dishonesty like everything in the world was explained through a rational model of thinking. The Simple Model of Rational Crime (SMORC) in this case. What does this model tell us? It presumes that dishonesty is driven simply by a cost-benefit analysis. The bigger the benefit the greater the tendency to cheat. And if it is easy to get away with, then it should lead to more dishonesty. Unfortunately research into this aspect of human failing proves otherwise. Like everything about us that makes us human our moral compass is highly irrational as well. This is the model that Dan Ariely challenged through a series of experiments and extensively covered the findings in his book “The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.”

So what does the research tell us? EVERYONE has a tendency to be dishonest. There is an interesting anecdote about one of Dan’s students and a locksmith that illustrates this point rather well. The student, Peter at one instance managed to lock himself out of his house and went through a lot of trouble finding a certified locksmith. Eventually when he did find one, his front door was unlocked in under a minute. If lock-picking is so easy then what’s the point of having locks he wondered. The locksmith’s response summed up his predicament quite aptly. In the world there are 1% amongst us who would go to any level to be dishonest. While there is another 1% that would never be dishonest no matter the temptation. A vast majority of us – the 98% genuinely want to be honest BUT if given the opportunity would give in to temptation. While the exact number can be argued the key finding holds.

Given an opportunity to be dishonest majority of the people will cheat but ONLY up to a certain point. This is where it gets irrational. In the experiments the team created various conditions where participants could fudge the results to an absolute level and get away with the maximum reward. There were variations to the experiment that gave them the freedom to cheat with no risk of getting caught. Despite these changes the cheating remained consistent. In fact in one condition when the reward was very high, cheating actually decreased. Why? It seems dishonesty is a balancing act. It is internally driven. The variations in cheating have to do with how we see ourselves, not how others would see us. People will cheat up to a level whereby they can see and believe themselves to be honest individuals. This is the “fudge factor” and it can be manipulated based on the context. Here is where storytelling comes in. Our ability to tell stories not just to anyone but to ourselves is what helps us sleep at night and feel good about ourselves. This rationalization is what goes to extreme levels in pathological liars. And that is because of the way their brains are wired, as we saw earlier. Not only are they more susceptible to lying because of the lower density of gray matter in their prefrontal cortex but they tell better stories because of the relatively higher proportion of white matter. This is also the reason why creative people also have that tendency to be better liars. They can tell better stories. And if they were to be dishonest they would be able to rationalize their lies better. Unfortunately this aspect was researched with folks that work in advertising across roles. The highest incidence of dishonesty was among the creative teams while the the lowest incidence of dishonesty was among accountants! So yes the more creative you are the more likely you are to be dishonest. And yes there is a link between lying and creativity. Case in point. In one variation of the experiment a set of participants were primed to “feel” creative and guess what happened? They cheated more than other participants! All because priming triggered their creative self-image leading them to tell better stories (i.e. better rationalize their lies). Can you imagine that? Just feeling creative led to more cheating! And it’s all internally driven!

You see majority of the research seems to indicate that dishonesty is driven by the desire to balance between lying and feeling good about ourselves. The more creative our story the more we will be dishonest. Take illegal downloading for example. Haven’t we all done it! Like seriously? Why is it not seen as a crime? What’s the story you tell yourself? That it’s all digital. You are not actually stealing a physical object. When you download something you are not taking anything from anyone. The binary code is merely being copied and recreated in your system. This is the story I used to tell myself. But I wouldn’t walk out of a restaurant without ever paying the bill. In fact Dan Ariely did some research on this as well. At a particular restaurant he asked the waiters if there was a way to get away without paying the bill. And indeed there was an exit near the restroom that one could easily use to get away without paying, but in the history of the business that had never happened. Maybe it’s the personal human connection or the tangibility of the transaction. Or perhaps it’s an idea that is very hard to rationalize. In other words, not paying for food at a restaurant would completely shatter our self-image of being a nice, honest person and therefore nobody ever does it. But when it comes to illegal downloading we don’t see ourselves as dishonest at all!

Surprised? Well it gets worse! I won’t be able to divulge into it all here but suffice to say that the rabbit hole of dishonesty is rather deep! Take heart though, there are some silver linings too! I would like to close with at least one example (or maybe two) of how we can counter our dishonesty. In one iteration of the experiment the participants were asked to recall the Ten Commandments just before starting the test. The result! No cheating whatsoever. It seems religion has the power to reset our moral compass. From a secular perspective any variation of the Ten Commandments that attempts to remind us of a higher ethical standard, helps to curb our tendency to be dishonest. But this needs to be taken with a huge dose of caution. They only work, I repeat, only work at a specific context for a specific occasion i.e. just before a task whereby one can be tempted to cheat so the context of the reminder is clearly established. But general reminders like oaths of office or any other crash course on ethics before starting a job for example don’t have any long-term effect. In another instance where cheating was reduced to zero was when the participants were subjected to direct observation. As part of the experiment the participants were grouped into random pairs where each partner took turns to answer the questions while the other observed silently. They were allowed no interaction whatsoever but simply observed each other. There was no incidence of cheating here as well. However for the same experiment when the participants were allowed some time to get acquainted, to recreate closer to real life dynamic of collaborative work, the effect of observation disappeared. In other words, the rate of cheating went back up! While the above experiments point to possible solutions to curb our dishonest tendencies there are really no simple answers. In this post I have only scratched the surface of both the challenges and solutions as covered by Dan Ariely in his book. I would suggest further reading if this topic interests you. I too would be looking at dishonesty further in upcoming posts! Probably first thing in the morning…I promise!

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