The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves
Dan Ariely
HarperCollins, 2012 ($26.99)

Liars: they populate our news feeds, perform evil deeds on our favorite television shows and infuse drama into our daily lives. The psychological origins of both Bernard Madoff–scale Ponzi schemes and the mundane dishonesties most of us partake in—filching office pens, padding expense reports or secretly toting a counterfeit designer purse—are the subject of Ariely's The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty.

Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics, suggests that a moral sweet spot guides our decisions, so that we “benefit from dishonesty without destroying our own self-image.” We dial up our lies when we perceive them as benefiting a friend (that's altruism!) and tend to exaggerate more liberally when we're sporting fake designer sunglasses (hey, we're already fudging our fashion, why not push a few more boundaries?). Rather than applying a cost-benefit analysis—will I get away with it?—Ariely argues that we decide whether to behave truthfully by considering complex internal and environmental influences.

Many of the factors he cites are social. Social contagion may facilitate deceit: just as a virus spreads by proximity to an infectious person, Ariely argues, dishonesty in one's social group can be catching. Although skeptics have challenged theories of social contagion, he cites real-life examples in politics, finance and his own research on cheating, which shows that dishonesty can become the norm when a group practices it openly. Creativity, too, is linked to dishonesty—not because creative people are more likely to be dishonest but because they are probably better at convincing themselves of their own lies.

So what holds us in check? “Moral prophylactics” such as the presence of Bibles and locks are associated with honesty, probably by acting as reminders of a social contract. Similarly, even suggested surveillance, such as decorating a communal coffee kitty with a pair of eyes, can promote honesty. Seeing a person outside one's social circle breaking the rules also seems to discourage bad behavior—most likely, Ariely posits, because we want to distance ourselves from people we perceive as “other.”

It is slightly dissatisfying that Ariely does not consider the potential benefits of dishonesty beyond those of white lies, perhaps overlooking other reasons why we fudge the truth. Second, he touches on the neurological underpinnings of only pathological liars, leaving the rest of us with little biological insight into our transgressions. Yet (Honest) Truth contains a wealth of fascinating findings about what makes us garden-variety fibbers do what we do and why certain moral reminders may make us think twice.