Monday, August 20, 2012

"Why We Lie, Go to Prison and Eat Cake"...and Ultrarunning

I recntly read a great interview of Dan Ariely in Wired, by Joanna Pearlstein.  First, a wonderful title: Why We Lie, Go to Prison and Eat Cake: 10 Questions With Dan Ariely.

I could post the entire lengthy article--it's that good--but I'll just tantalize you with a couple excerpts.  Let me say that I saw myself in what I read, and you will too.  I understand unethical behavior a little more now.

Without further ado, here are a few gems:

If you’re a fan of a sports team, it’s easy to see a call against your team as the referee being evil or stupid. You need to have a motivation to see reality in a certain way. The second thing you need is flexible rules. If the rules are incredibly strict, you can’t bend them in any way. But if the rules are slightly grey, there’s a zone in which you can cheat. And finally, you need a way to rationalize your actions for yourself.

If you thought that crime or dishonesty is driven by a cost-benefit analysis, then you have some very basic solutions — for example, put people in prison. And people who were going to commit a crime would say, ‘Okay, I’ll go to prison, not worth it.’ I’ve been talking to big cheaters, including people who have been to prison, and I tell you, nobody I’ve talked to has ever thought about the long-term consequences of their actions. How many people who did insider trading thought about the probability of being caught and how much time they would get in prison? The number is incredibly close to zero, maybe exactly zero. What will happen if we increase the prison sentence? Basically nothing, because it’s not part of their mindset. What we need to understand is the process by which people become dishonest.

If you think about it, your own idea of morality is really kind of binary, you’re either good or bad, nobody thinks to themselves, I’m 80 percent good. What happens if you pass the threshold? If you pass the threshold and you can no longer think of yourself as good, you say to yourself, I’m a bad person, I’m an immoral person, I might as well enjoy it.

We talk about honesty, but the reality is we have lots of human values, and they are not all compatible. We don’t always tell the truth about everything, no matter what the consequences. If you have an internal truth of what you think and you have an external truth of what you say to society, in the social domain it’s called politeness, and it’s many cases it’s okay. The problem arises when this becomes commercial rather than personal. If you’re an accountant and you have an internal truth of what’s happening in your company and you have an external truth, you can see where this goes. Honesty is a complex and tricky thing, and we don’t want to be honest all the time.

By the way, there’s some really disturbing results showing that the best financial investment in the U.S. is lobbying. Return on the money is really high. I mean, you can give someone a sandwich and they will start seeing the world from your perspective to a slight degree. The moment you do favors for somebody, the moment you put them in a different situation, their view does change.

Oh, and the mandatory connection to Ultrarunning?  Instances of cheating in Ultrarunning are remarkably rare.  It's just not important to go down that road--our motivation and rewards system are just on a different plane.


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