Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Honesty Is the Best Policy ... Except When It Isn't

My friend Katherine sent me a link the other day to a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal that she thought would be prime blogging material: Why We Lie.

The concept of honesty and integrity is an interesting and timely one, particularly in a major political campaigning season. We all think of ourselves as basically honest and trustworthy people, so why do we lie? What are the things that will make an otherwise upright and honest person resort to unethical behavior or lying? The article contains this graphic which summarizes some of the factors which will tend to increase either honesty or dishonesty ...

So, why do we lie? The article leads off with an observation (that was also one of my father's favorite sayings) that if you lock your doors and windows, it will keep the honest people out, then goes on to describe experiments staged to determine the conditions under which we might be more inclined to lie than to tell the truth. I won't bore you with all the details, but the results are captured pretty well by the graphic. The article summarizes it like this:

Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little. Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society.

We all tell little white lies for a variety of reasons, and many of them are harmless and arise from good motivations, such as to spare the feelings of another. No man, for instance, could be depended upon to give a consistently honest answer to a question like "do these pants make me look fat?" Most of us would be willing to fudge a bit on a tax return, on the theory that the tax system is unfair and stacked in favor of others, or to overlook an error in our favor on a restaurant tab. An atheist preparing to give testimony in court might well swear to tell the truth ... with his hand on a Bible in which he doesn't believe.

A political partisan will sometimes lie outright for political advantage, but more common is the tendency to not tell the whole story ... to use statistics and quotes out of context and to cherry-pick data to "prove" a particular position ... and most people predisposed to that political position will swallow the lie whole, without bothering to ask any questions. The other day, my brother forwarded me an e-mail that accuses the administration of trying to sneak in a particularly underhanded tax via the "Debt Free America Act," which would put a 1% tax on every single financial transaction of any sort. It gives the actual number of the House bill (HR 4646) and quotes from a article it claims proves that the allegation is true.

But it isn't.

The bill actually exists, but is one that has been frequently submitted by a single Congressman, has never gotten any support from anyone else, and has no chance of becoming law. The quotes are all taken out of context and arranged to make it look as if the story is true, when in fact Snopes concludes it is false. You can read the analysis here.

But who would go to the trouble of checking the veracity of that e-mail? I did, because I'm naturally skeptical. Most hardshell conservatives would swallow the story absolutely, as my brother did.

I like to think of myself as honest and ethical, as I'm sure we all do. But, sadly, the evidence shows that all of us are inclined, under the right circumstances, to step over the truthfulness line, or to unquestioningly accept the half-truths or outright lies of others. And especially in today's America, that's a very sad thing.

Have a good day. Honestly. More thoughts tomorrow.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

Bilbo, a very concise and apt summary about the reasons behing lying. One of the factors related to increasing likelihood of lying is creativity. This is something to ponder, Do some liars consider their self-interested prevarications a art form? And we have culturally accepted the roles of flacks and spin doctors.

I recently was reading about disinformation in military settings, with the distinctions among white psyops, gray psyops, and black psyops. Very interesting.

Duckbutt said...

It is ironical that Parson Weem's cherry tree story, the traditional American tale told to children to admonish them to be honest, was made up. Still, having moral examplars does help.

Big Sky Heidi said...

I'm amazed that amount of money isn't a factor with lieing. Very interesting blog topic, I enjoyed it.