Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

I've just been reading a book called The Honest Truth about Dishonesty by Dan Ariely. No, dear reader, it's not Hansard or a transcript of Alan Jones' broadcast to his faithful few. It's actually a book about the psychology of how we just can't help ourselves but push the boundaries of honesty. It makes for riveting and somewhat disturbing reading, mostly because it is confronting.

There's a ton of research to show that humans are prone, as a matter of course to be dishonest. Yes, that includes you and me. It's not that we are all nasty psychopaths or steal from the poor box: most of us couldn't live with ourselves if we were.

Rather, we engage in what is called the fudge factor. We are a little bit dishonest, but not a whole lot. It seems that we are able to rationalise to ourselves a little fudging but not excessively, because then we would have to acknowledge that we are indeed very naughty. Being really bad means that the bogeyman, some god or other, or visions of mum will reap vengeance on us. Such is guilt - the emotion of social control.

There are lots of ways in which we engage in fudging but there is only space here for one example. Some retailers put boxes of goodies like biscuits, chips, lollies and chocolates in workplaces. These boxes operate on an honesty system and are replenished regularly. The amount of money in the box is nearly always a little below what it should be. Obviously the retailer inflates the item price to allow for this. However, the amount is relatively small.

It is easy to imagine people with not quite enough cash arguing with themselves that they'll put the extra 10 cents in later or that the prices are inflated anyway, so what the heck. The same thing happens in roadside vegetable and fruit stalls that use an honesty system.

Interestingly, a neat research study showed that placing a picture of eyes near the box, so that people cannot miss it, reduced the shortfall quite dramatically. Pictures of flowers or other objects didn't have the same effect. Quite unconsciously people pick up the presence of the eyes, which is a reminder that what they are doing is wrong.

Perhaps god works in the same way, (as do bogeymen and mums!) If we think we can get away with dishonesty, or at least think that no-one is watching, then we are more prone to fudge.

Golf is another example. In a massive research project involving 20,000 golfers it was found that the participants estimated that up to about 18% or so of other golfers cheated at some time. More interesting was that about 10% fessed up that they had personally cheated and you'd have to think that this was an underestimate. Even more exciting was the fact that cheating was easier if one was a little distanced from the event. This might involve claiming the wrong score before writing it down rather than afterwards, and moving a ball from a bad lie (pun intended) with ones club rather than foot or hand.

You can see how this would work with all sorts of things from infidelity to cheating on one's taxes.

Dr Stewart Hase is an Adjunct Fellow with Southern Cross University and a consultant psychologist. You can visit his blog at stewarthase.blogspot.com


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