Years ago, Dan Ariely was due for a surgical procedure, and when he asked a nurse if it would hurt, she said “No.”
Well, it did. A lot. But for the several weeks prior to the surgery, Ariely never worried that it would. And what the nurse told him, he says, is a pure example of a white lie. “White lies are basically sometimes good lies,” states Ariely. “A pure white lie is a lie that I get no benefit from.”
Ariely, a professor of psychology at Duke and founder of its Center For Advanced Hindsight, knows a thing or two about lying. As shown in the documentary “(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies,” he’s been studying falsehoods and how they impact society for years. The film, which was a hit at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, is now available online, and will be released on DVD in November.
In “(Dis)Honesty,” Ariely, a very engaging lecturer, discusses experiments he has run involving truth-telling. The discussion is intercut with testimonies from real people – including an NBA referee, pro cyclist and stock trader – who lied and engaged in dishonest practices. All try, in one way or another, to justify their conduct.
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Which is, says Ariely, pretty typical. “We find a lot of dishonesty is a mixture of selfishness, wishful blindness and other things as well, like this idea that everyone else is doing it,” he says. “Imagine, for example, I sell a particular financial product, and I get lots of money if I exaggerate the performance of that product. And everyone else is doing the same thing. Under those conditions, you can see how I can behave badly without thinking I am a crook.”
That first wrong step
Financial incentive, in fact, is one of the key reasons for dishonesty in today’s society, which points to problems within our economic and political systems. “All dishonesty has some incentive,” says Ariely. “Is this a serious reflection on our political life? The answer is yes. Almost everywhere we go in our political life you see tremendous conflicts of interest. Once corruption gets into society, it’s hard to fight it, and it can destroy societies.”
And yet the biggest problems can start with the smallest step. Ariely emphasizes that his research, and the experience of the people profiled in the film, show that “when you look at the first step they took, they started to help somebody else (the NBA ref, for example, helped a friend bet on games, then bet on them himself), or solve a particular problem. We really need to worry about first steps in the wrong direction. If you understand that those people started just like you and took a step in the wrong direction, you would think differently about your own potential to be dishonest.”
Is dishonesty a truly serious societal issue? “It’s more serious than we think it is,” says Ariely. “Think about what role trust has in society. What if you didn’t trust anybody? What would happen? When we stop feeling badly about behavior in some cases, lots of things go badly.”
(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies
Director: Yael Melamede
Length: 1 hour, 30 minutes
How to watch: Buy online at iTunes ($10.99) or at thedishonestyproject.com/film ($10.99-$14.99). Also available to rent on GooglePlay ($3.99) and Vimeo ($4.99). The DVD, releasing in November, is available for pre-order at thedishonestyproject.com for $24.99.