Is Honesty Still Important?
Donald Trump: The CNN reporter, an absolutely horrible reporter, she starts off saying, 'Oh look, the room is half empty,' everybody was standing right next to me in the front of the room.
Journalist: Well, make no mistake, everything you just heard Donald Trump say is wrong. Here again is Randi Kaye:
Randi Kaye: Here's some video around the same time, and notice the many empty seats in the back of the room. Not everyone was standing, and the empty seats were empty because they were never occupied.
Antony Funnell: I am by no means the first person to point out that Donald Trump has serious problems with the truth. Hello, Antony Funnell here, welcome to Future Tense.
Let me put some figures to that statement. You'll like this; late last year the website Politico went on the hustings with Trump and they calculated that he averages at least one 'mistruth' every five minutes.
Then there's the fact-checking site Politifact. I've got it here. Oh yes, they've calculated that 76% of the statements he makes are false. 76%! Amazing really. Perhaps he's in a class of his own, but politics, we shouldn't forget, has long been home to quite a few 'misstatement' makers.
Bill Clinton: But I want to say one thing to the American people; I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky…
George W Bush: Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken greater risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction.
Bill Clinton: Indeed I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact it was wrong.
Antony Funnell: Now, I don't want to beat up on American presidents, or would-be presidents, because lies and deception have no borders. From Donald Trump to 'native' advertising to online 'influencers', our understanding of honesty and deception seems to be getting increasingly blurry. But are we, in fact, far more comfortable as a society with high levels of exaggeration, spin and even lying? Do we naturally discount for deceit? And does the media we use actively encourage and even reward deception? They're some of the questions we'll seek to answer today.
Leonard Saxe: It's very hard to tell whether things have changed. Politicians have always lied, people have always used deceptive techniques to get what they wanted. What's curious today is that whether it's a political figure, whether it's a business person, whether it's a person in medicine or science or law, when they lie, we actually have the tools, we have Google and we have other ways of finding out rather quickly whether someone is telling the truth or not, and they still do it. That's a little surprising to me.
Antony Funnell: Leonard Saxe, Professor of Social Policy at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
Leonard Saxe: One of the problems is that they may not perceive it as a lie. In other words a lie is typically described as something that you know to be false. So a famous quote…one of our great presidents, John Kennedy, was interviewed on the 90th day after being elected President in the United States, and the reporter asked him what surprised you the most about becoming President, and he said that what surprised him was that things were actually as bad, in fact worse, than he had claimed that they were during the campaign. What is happening now is just an exaggeration of it.
By the way, a politician may lie because they think they are doing it for the greater good. They genuinely believe that if they are elected, the country, the world, society will be better, and whatever it takes to get there they are going to do.
Part of the problem in the public fora is that there is so much information out there, even though there have been many articles about the voracity of what presidential candidates in America are saying, people only read now those things that they want to read. You can select the news, you can select the analyses that you read, and so you don't have to worry about being exposed to facts that may not agree with what you think or the person that you've agreed to support thinks.
Antony Funnell: And leaves us more vulnerable to being deceived in certain ways.
Leonard Saxe: It leads us to create a world in our own heads, and in the long term is probably not healthy. We have problems, whether it's climate change or race relations or fundamental issues about the economy where to the extent that we are not willing to listen to other people's views, that we are looking for yes/no answers, simple answers, not complicated answers, we are not going to be able to collectively dissolve the problems that we face together.
Many times we don't tell the truth because we want to be good, we want to be nice. We might tell our spouse dinner was wonderful, even if it wasn't. They look beautiful. There are lots of things that we say simply because it's polite. It shows the other person that we respect them, we love them, we care for them, it's not a nefarious goal.
Antony Funnell: The time in which we live is a time of considerable exaggeration, particularly in marketing. And even in the way we speak, everything is terrific, it's awesome, it's wonderful. Does that, coupled with the fact that opinion is now so much a part of our public discourse these days, do those factors make for a conducive environment for deception?
Leonard Saxe: I think they do. I think that in order to be heard today to get through all of the information, social media that envelops us, the information explosion around us, people have to speak louder, they have to say more dramatic things in order to get others to pay attention to them.
Antony Funnell: Do you think though that we realise that a lot of this is embellishment?
Leonard Saxe: I think even at a conscious level we recognise that they are not correct. Once we know that something is advertising, we know to pay attention to it, to be more sceptical about the information than if we know that it's news. One of the problems is that it's becoming harder to distinguish news from opinion from advertising, and again, it is part of living in a world where there has been an information explosion and where we are saturated by social media.
Antony Funnell: And you only have to think about a reputable news source like the Guardian to see how things are changing, how the line between truth and falsity is getting blurred. The Guardian is a global supplier of reputable news, but its online sites are also platforms for 'native' advertising, a fancy term for advertisements dressed up to look like news stories. And why are they dressed up that way? Well, to deceive you of course.
Then there are the people online they call 'influencers'.
Journalist: This is the CBS evening news. 18-year-old Essena O'Neill often got paid for product placements in her posts because the Australian blogger had about half a million followers on Instagram, on top of 200,000 followers on YouTube, and 60,000 more on Snapchat. She recently ditched those accounts.
Essena O'Neill: My point is, getting…
Antony Funnell: When Essena O'Neill made a tearful public apology last year it went around the world, as you can hear. She openly admitted that she'd made up to $2,000 a pop simply by posing in photos with products that various marketing agencies had asked her to endorse. In other words, she pretended to like certain products in order to make money, or, in marketing speak, to 'monetise her following'. She also revealed that such manipulation was widespread. That many young people with a significant online following do exactly the same thing.
So, a straight out case of deceit? Well, Dr Sven Brodmerkel says in the modern world it's not always going to be seen in those terms. He's an Assistant Professor for Advertising and Integrated Marketing Communications at Bond University in Queensland.
Sven Brodmerkel: Does it appear as dishonest? It might be and it might not actually appear because, again, you need to think about what is actually the dishonesty here. If you ask influencers 'are you being paid for supporting this particular product online', and they would say 'no', they are obviously dishonest. If you don't ask, they would probably argue 'I'm not actually really dishonest'. But I think what also comes into play is the idea that even if they were paid for making these particular comments or advertising or talking about particular products, you could also approach from the perspective, hmm, maybe this particular person actually really believes that this particular product or service is really great and worth talking about. So we already have different perspectives for what is dishonest.
So he might be dishonest and not disclosing that he is being paid for it, but he or she might be honest in actually the personal evaluation of this particular product. And then again we see this whole idea of, oh, it doesn't matter that much whether he is actually really honest in one particular aspect of what he does, but he is authentic in that he or she is really invested in this particular subculture or knows about these particular products or services in depth because he has a history in this particular area or so forth. So again, for the influencer as such, the aim or the goal is more or less to represent themselves as authentic and not so much as necessarily honest in this binary way.
Antony Funnell: And of course for advertisers, the type of advertising that they would want or the types of products that they would want an influencer to push would be products that would be believable for that influencer in their life given who they are, their age, their sorts of likes and dislikes that would be believable for them to actually promote.
Sven Brodmerkel: Exactly. So when you look at how agencies who are actually established contacts between marketers and influencers, how they work, they would actually really argue and drive marketers towards this particular view, saying if you want to hire an influencer with us, you need to make sure that this is actually an authentic person who is believable in the context of your product or service.
Antony Funnell: And the influencer is popular now or influential (pardon the pun) because of a distrust that many of us now have in the world for the expert.
Sven Brodmerkel: Yes, probably are. So there is a certain scepticism now in society I guess overall against claims to truth in general, and against snobby experts who are supposed to tell us what we should like or buy. And of course this has become even more prevalent and important in the context of social media, and this is why influencer marketing has become even more a kind of holy grail in marketing because we now have social media, you can hire influencers who have a large following, and in the end you can measure more precisely what they are actually up to and to what their influence actually leads in terms of engagement within their circle of followers and friends.
Antony Funnell: And the influencer seems more like a real person rather than an expert who, as you say, might be suspect. But again, that's ironic isn't it that you've got somebody who is being deceptive who seems to be more truthful than somebody else.
Sven Brodmerkel: It's definitely a paradoxical thing. We are looking for the real thing, for the authentic thing, but in the end more and more aspects are driven by commercial interests or at least infiltrated by commercial interests, and I think that's the main distinction here. We used to think about the untainted realm of non-commercial life and the tainted part of commercial life, and this is more and more interacting and blurring now. And in a sense, yes, it is definitely paradoxical; we are looking for the real thing but we might actually get the same thing we always got.
Antony Funnell: Dr Sven Brodmerkel from Bond University. And you're listening to Future Tense. I'm Antony Funnell.
Let's stay with Dr Brodmerkel and that idea of honesty being multi-layered and dependant on context, and a warning; in the next part of this interview we do use what some people might consider strong language.
Sven Brodmerkel: I would argue that in most more complex social situations, the situations don't appear to us as just the option between A and B, true or false, but they are basically a kind of mixture, a kind of intermingling of so many different factors that it becomes really hard for us to decide is this true or is this false, but maybe something in between.
Antony Funnell: And that in between…you are taken by a philosopher at Princeton named Henry Frankfurt who talks about an in between level that he calls bullshit. Tell us how bullshit fits in this. So there's various layers, there is truth, there's lies and then there's bullshit. What is he mean by bullshit?
Sven Brodmerkel: Basically his argument is that, say, a liar does care about truth because he wants to misrepresent the truth. A bullshitter doesn't care that much about truth anymore because he has something totally different in mind, he wants to basically misrepresent what he is up to in the broader sense. And bullshit then becomes a not so much a misrepresentation of particular truth but just more a panoramic reframing of the context that guides us to interpret certain facts.
Antony Funnell: So just to be clear there, a lie is connected to honesty because you are wanting to misrepresent a situation.
Sven Brodmerkel: Yes, a very specific fact or situation.
Antony Funnell: But bullshit then is a fact that you give out, and you don't care whether it's right or wrong, whether it's correct or not, because what you are trying to do there is set a general sort of feeling or to give somebody a broader sense of where you are coming from or where you want to go. And Trump is a classic example of that, isn't he.
Sven Brodmerkel: He probably is. So we see here basically the phenomenon of what we in advertising would probably call branding, where you try to establish certain coordinates, emotional, effective coordinates, a frame so to speak that guides people or tells people how they are supposed to interpret certain facts. And even sometimes if it's not the perfect truth or even a misrepresentation, it becomes somewhat integrated in the overall brand image of the plain speaking, outspoken, even sometimes outrageous brand of Donald Trump.
Antony Funnell: So it doesn't matter if you or I look at someone like Donald Trump and we say, okay, what he has just said there is a lie and can be proved to be a lie, people who support him don't necessarily see it as a lie, they are happy just to think, well, on balance what he is saying is what I want to hear and I don't want to talk about the specifics of what is correct and what's not.
Sven Brodmerkel: That's probably exactly how it works. And we need to keep in mind that actually separating more complex situations of a complex issue, separating truth from fact is actually a pretty laborious, cognitively demanding task, because when we think about broader issues or even the broadest ones like climate change, how do we actually separate truth from fiction, who was right, who was wrong, so we rather tend to go with a kind of gut feeling, and the gut feeling is guided by bullshit, the broader frame of reference that these people actually establish. So they not necessarily care that much about honesty but more about authenticity. Am I authentic in my image of being the plain, outspoken, maybe even outrageous character that I represent, try to represent myself to be.
[Colbert Report montage of 'truthiness']
Dan Ariely: My name is Dan Ariely, and I am the James B Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University.
So when we think about honesty and dishonesty, the standard approach is to think about there's a few bad apples out there and everybody else is just wonderful. And what happens is that it's true that there are a few bad apples out there but it's not true that everybody else is wonderful. Everybody else thinks of themselves as being wonderful, but when we actually tempt people to steal money from us and we bring people to the lab and we tempt them to steal money, we find that lots of people cheat a little bit. And just to give you some numbers, we've done these experiments on more than 40,000 people, and we find less than a handful that cheat a lot, and we found tens of thousands that cheat a little bit. And we lost very little money to the big cheaters and we lost a tonne of money to the little cheaters because there are just so many of them, actually us, right, it's everybody.
Antony Funnell: I know you do various tests regarding honesty. Just give us a bit of an idea though of your main test, which is called the matrix task.
Dan Ariely: I'll actually give you one that is slightly simpler. I give people a six-sided die, and I say toss the die, we'll see whatever it comes up and I will pay you whatever it comes up, six is six dollars, five is five dollars and so on. But you can get paid based on the top side or bottom, top or bottom, you decide, but don't tell me. So I say, okay, hold the die, did you decide top or bottom? Yes. I say don't tell me, now toss the die. And let's say you tossed it and it came with five on the bottom and two on the top, and once we see the result, now I say, okay, what did you decide, top or bottom? Because it's two on the top and five on the bottom, if you say bottom you get five dollars, if you say top you get two dollars. So if you chose bottom, there's no problem, you say the truth. But if you chose top, now you have a dilemma; do you say the truth, that you really chose the top and you deserve two dollars, or do you change your mind after the fact?
And what we find when we run these experiments is that people are really lucky! When people do this 20 times and every time they think top or bottom, top or bottom, they get the correct response more than 50% of the time. Of course it's not that people are lucky, it's that people are lying just a little bit, and lots of people are lying a little bit.
Antony Funnell: So an awful lot of us, whether we like to admit it or not, lie a little. And you say dishonesty is contagious in that it's connected to social acceptability. Just explain that a bit more to us.
Dan Ariely: Yes, just think about it for a second, about what causes people to be honest and dishonest. It turns out it's not about the probability of being caught, is not about the size of the punishment, it's about what do we feel comfortable with. And what we feel comfortable with is the function of what other people around us are doing. So think about something like illegal downloads. I'm not going to ask you if you have any illegal downloads on your computer, but when I ask American undergrads they all say they do, and they all say they don't really care, they don't find it immoral. What happens is that because everybody else is doing it, it kind of went out of the moral domain. And we find similar results. So different countries have it's okay to bribe a policeman but not a public official. Different countries have all kinds of rules about what's acceptable, and those are very much social rules. And in our experiments we can show very easily that you could get people to behave a certain way and other people just gravitate to that behaviour.
Antony Funnell: So there's got to be social acceptability there, but as you say, there's also got to be an ability for each individual to rationalise their behaviour as being okay, even though they know they are being deceptive or they are lying.
Dan Ariely: That's right, and the word 'knowing' here is kind of tricky because what we find is that dishonesty is often about wishful blindness, it's about people not thinking very carefully about what they are doing. And at the moment they just kind of follow their gut motivation. So we have a selfish motivation to seek more profits, to see the world from our perspective and so on. And the question is do we stop and think about it carefully or do we just go with this intuition. In the same way that every sports fan knows that if they go to a game and the referee calls a call against their team, they can't see the referee as anything but evil, vile, stupid, blind, you know, something like that.
Our motivation to see the game in a certain way causes us to see it in a certain way, and the same thing for conflicts of interest. If we are banker and we get paid for one thing versus another, if we are a politician and we have friends who are lobbyists and want us to vote one way or another, in all of those cases we want to see reality in a certain way and we use our ability to bend reality and see it in a way that is compatible with what we wanted to see and ignoring objective reality, and with that become very selfish.
Antony Funnell: But we still want to believe that we are honest, that's crucial here isn't it.
Dan Ariely: That's right, and that's why we don't cheat a lot. You see, what happens is we are trying to balance feeling good about ourselves and benefiting from dishonesty. And if we cheated a lot we couldn't help but say, hey, my goodness, I'm a cheater. But as long as we cheat just a little bit and we can rationalise it, that's where we can perfectly explain to ourselves. This is also why we find that creative people cheat more. What happens is that creative people can tell a better story, they can weave a better tale and they can manage to cheat more and still tell themselves a story about why what they are doing is actually okay.
Antony Funnell: Does that help explain to us why our world at the moment seems to be filled with so much dishonesty? A lot of our advertising is exaggeration or filled with just straight-out untruths. And the same is often said of politics. Is there an explanation here that you can give us?
Dan Ariely: There are multiple explanations. The first one of course is that if people in advertising think that everybody else is doing it, that becomes acceptable. People don't feel bad about it. If people can look at their competitors and say they have done X and they say it must be the standard, it's okay. So that's one thing that just happens as a social norm, and the same thing happens with politicians.
But in politicians we also found something else. We have the election season now in the US and lots of lying and deception is going on, and we looked at what people want from their politicians, and what we found was that people want the politicians on the other side of the aisle to be honest, but they want the politician on their side of the aisle to be dishonest. And why? It's because people are ideological. They want particular policies. People on the left wing want healthcare and more environmental policies. People on the right want to abolish national healthcare and they want lower taxation. Whatever people believe in, their belief in the rightness of the policy overwhelms their desire for honesty.
So if you think about it, there are lots of human values out there. One of them is the outcomes that we want. And the question is to what extent are we willing to sacrifice it for honesty? And in politics right now the American public is willing to accept lots of betrayal of honesty for the policies that they want to see enacted.
Antony Funnell: You also believe, don't you, that some of the systems that we set up actually foster dishonesty or deception, including the notion of the cashless economy.
Dan Ariely: Yes, and there are many ways in which we set things up in a way that is incompatible with our ability to rationalise. And one of those of course is conflicts of interest. So we are creating so many systems with conflicts of interest. Of course banking, politics, healthcare. Imagine a physician who is faced between a choice of something that is better for their patient and something that is better for them financially. And we are not asking whether a physician will do something knowingly against their patient, but we are asking can they actually ignore their financial incentive, can they fully ignore it. And the answer is absolutely no.
And then the other part that you mention is this idea of a distance for money. So when we get people to do these tasks and when they finish doing these tasks they look at the experimenter in the eye and they say, you know, you owe me X amount of money, people cheat a little bit. But when they look them in the eyes and they say you owe me X amount of tokens and then they take these tokens, walk 12 feet to the side and change them for money, our participants doubled their cheating.
And the idea is that when you lie for money it's a very concrete thing, it's like taking money from a petty cash box. But when you are lying for something that is tokens, you can fool yourself that you are actually not that bad. It's like taking office supplies from the office or exaggerating a little bit on expense reports. People just don't feel the connection with that, it's not as clear, people don't feel as bad about these lies.
If you think about the modern economy, a lot of it is about distance, a lot of it is about not cash but credit, stock options, derivatives, not dealing with people directly, dealing with people over great distances, and all of those distances are allowing people to be more dishonest on one side but still think of themselves as being honest on the other.
Antony Funnell: And just finally, for some of us it feels like we are living in a time where there is enormous deception going on on a daily basis or minute by minute basis within our world. It is our society at the moment any more deceptive than previous generations, or are perhaps just some of us more attuned to it or is it more in our face?
Dan Ariely: So I think society today is more deceptive, but it's not because people are worse in their nature. It's not as if the generation X, Y or Z are kind of worse people. But if you think about this idea of distance from other people and you say that what we are doing now is we are dealing more and more with people who we don't know, do you think about the social amplification of bad behaviour, we are in a time and place in history where we see lots of what other people are doing. We pay particular attention to the bad behaviours.
Right now think about the presidential candidates in the US. We basically every day hear all the things that they've said every day. It's really easy to get how many lies they've said every day. This was not something that was available 50 years ago. So our exposure to those things is much higher. Our understanding of them is much higher. And the distance we have from other people is much higher. So I think what's happening now is technology is getting the same types of people to actually behave in much worse ways.
Antony Funnell: No offence intended of course. Our guests today on Future Tense were Dan Ariely, from Duke University, Leonard Saxe from Brandeis University, also in the United States, and Sven Brodmerkel from Bond University in Australia.
My co-producer on this show is Karin Zsivanovits, the sound engineer Steve Fieldhouse. I'm Antony Funnell, until next time, cheers!
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