Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Honest Truth about Dishonesty [A book review]

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves

By: Dan Ariely

Published June 5th 2012 by Harper

The New York Times bestselling author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality returns with thought-provoking work to challenge our preconceptions about dishonesty and urge us to take an honest look at ourselves.

Does the chance of getting caught affect how likely we are to cheat?
How do companies pave the way for dishonesty?
Does collaboration make us more honest or less so?
Does religion improve our honesty?
Most of us think of ourselves as honest, but, in fact, we all cheat. From Washington to Wall Street, the classroom to the workplace, unethical behavior is everywhere. None of us is immune, whether it’s the white lie to head off trouble or padding our expense reports. In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, award-winning, bestselling author Dan Ariely turns his unique insight and innovative research to the question of dishonesty.

Generally, we assume that cheating, like most other decisions, is based on a rational cost-benefit analysis. But Ariely argues, and then demonstrates, that it’s actually the irrational forces that we don’t take into account that often determine whether we behave ethically or not. For every Enron or political bribe, there are countless puffed résumÉs, hidden commissions, and knockoff purses. In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Ariely shows why some things are easier to lie about; how getting caught matters less than we think; and how business practices pave the way for unethical behavior, both intentionally and unintentionally. Ariely explores how unethical behavior works in the personal, professional, and political worlds, and how it affects all of us, even as we think of ourselves as having high moral standards.

But all is not lost. Ariely also identifies what keeps us honest, pointing the way for achieving higher ethics in our everyday lives. With compelling personal and academic findings, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty will change the way we see ourselves, our actions, and others.

Dan Ariely (so far) never ceases to impress me in his quest to unlock the secret of human irrationality. In his third book, he puts dishonesty on the centre stage. I read it, I am hooked, I love it.

First, I admire his passion and ability to narrate researches using layman language in a way that makes readers feel as if they’re involved in the journey. It makes me able to appreciate research more – you see something, no matter how trivial it is (correction: often trivial things, when examined, reveal hidden insights the most), that intrigues your interest, design the research creatively and voila you learn something new.

Second, related to the content of the book. Through experiments he and his colleagues conducted, he takes readers to question what generally people assume to be the cause of dishonesty and what can curb it.

Assumption A:

Personality. People cheat because they are (pathologically) dishonest people to begin with.

What research shows:

Nice people can cheat given some circumstances.

Assumption B:

Simple rational model of crime. What causes nice people to cheat is the benefit of cheating outweighing the cost. The bigger the benefit is (e.g. the amount of money) and the more unlikely for them to be caught, the more they cheat.

What research shows:

The amount of money and probability of being caught are not significant forces that shape cheating or dishonesty. Interestingly if the benefit reaped from cheating is too big, people tend not to cheat. From this point, Dan Ariely shows why simple model of crime is not adequate to explain dishonesty – it neglects the point that people want to see themselves having a good moral and their ‘ability’ to cheat depends on how they can reconcile or rationalise cheating with this desired view of self.

Then Dan Ariely opens our eyes on irrational forces which unconsciously drive people to cheat and rationalise their behaviour. Surprisingly simple everyday circumstances ‘tempt’ people to cheat, even as trivial as sporting counterfeit products. Even more surprising, sometimes, good values our society praise, such as altruism, creativity, can also drive people to cheat.

Based on these learnings, Dan Ariely also gives suggestions on ways to curb dishonesty. Some of the suggestions, he already tested it. However there are complex situations where he admits he does not have the silver bullets that can solve everything.

And that brings me to the third reason why I like this book so much: the author’s honesty that stays true to the book’s title “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty. Besides, honesty is a very important virtue in science or anything that is related to knowledge business. Knowledge is power. When that knowledge reflects the truth (less biased), it is useful – to help a lot to solve problems, better outcomes in respective field. Hence being objective is the gold standard any scientist or people who deal with knowledge should aspire to achieve.

In the last chapter, the author reveals this book’s limitation. He admits other factor such as cultural influences might play a big role on dishonesty and he realises readers might expect it to be given a big portion in this book. Apparently some experiments have been replicated in other countries yet it yields similar results.

This ‘honesty’ reflects on the conclusion takes account of the limitation of tests he used:

“Our matrix test exists outside any cultural context. That is, it’s not an engrained part of any social or cultural environment. Therefore, it tests the basic human capacity to be morally flexible and reframe situations and actions in ways that reflect positively on ourselves. Our daily activities, on the other hand, are entwined in a complex cultural context.”

On explanation on why there is no chapter about infidelity in this book:

“With all of this complexity, nuance, and social importance, you might wonder why there isn’t a chapter in this book about infidelity and why this rather fascinating topic is relegated to one small section. The problem is data. I generally like to stick to conclusions I can draw from experiments and data. Conducting experiments on infidelity would be nearly impossible, and the data by their very nature are difficult to estimate. This means that for now we are left to speculate – and only speculate – about infidelity.”

Back to the silver bullets problem, one might ask, “if there is no silver bullet, what’s the use of knowing all of these?” I think this book has served its purpose – widen our perspectives on dishonesty.

“… dishonesty is a prime example of our irrational tendencies. It’s pervasive; we don’t instinctively understand how it works its magic on us; and most important, we don’t see it ourselves.

The good news in all of this is that we are not helpless in the face of our human foibles (dishonesty included). Once we better understand what really causes our less-than-optimal behavior, we can’t start to discover ways to control our behavior and improve our outcomes.”

By understanding irrational forces that can drive us to cheat, it is now our task to start finding ways to control our behaviour. First, start from the man/woman in the mirror. Then, think critically whether as a citizen when reviewing policies or coming up with idea to solve social problems (e.g. how to prevent corruption, how to tackle institutionalised blackmail in law enforcement) or as an aspiring ‘Of The People, By The People, For The People’ policy makers when designing policies (e.g. how to stay loyal to the people instead of drifting to corruption and any practice that puts self-interest/elite’s interest above all).

Watch Dan Ariely’s eye-opening TED talk on the hidden reasons we think it’s OK to cheat or steal (sometimes).

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The Little Prince – a must-read for everybody especially grown ups [a book review]

Original Title: Le Petit Prince

Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Illustrator: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Cover Artist: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince (French: ”Le Petit Prince”), first published in 1943, is a novella and the most famous work of the French aristocrat writer, poet and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944, Mort pour la France).[Note 2]

The novella is both the most read and most translated book in the French language, and was voted the best book of the 20th century in France. Translated into more than 250 languages and dialects,[3] selling over a million copies per year with sales totaling over 200 million copies worldwide, it has become one of the best-selling books ever published.[4][5][6]

Saint-Exupéry, a laureate of several of France’s highest literary awards and a reserve military pilot at the start of the Second World War, wrote and illustrated the manuscript while exiled in the United States after the Fall of France. He had traveled there on a personal mission to convince its government to quickly enter the war against Nazi Germany. In the midst of personal upheavals and failing health he produced almost half of the writings he would be remembered for, including a tender tale of loneliness, friendship, love and loss, in the form of a young prince fallen to Earth.[7]

An earlier memoir by the author recounted his aviation experiences in the Sahara desert and he is thought to have drawn on those same experiences for use as plot elements in The Little Prince. Since first being published the novella has been adapted to various media over the decades, including audio recordingsstagescreenballet and operatic works


I heard people raving about this book and I completely understand why!

“The Little Prince” is centred on a little prince who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet, embarks on an ‘intergalactical’ journey and experiences interesting encounters with grown ups in different planets. His story is narrated in his conversation with an aviator he met who made a forced landing due to engine failure in the Sahara dessert – a place, that is often portrayed as lonely, sad place where life will meet its end, is interestingly chosen to be the place of birth of enlightenment and connection. 

Combining innocent, honest and imaginative storytelling style with premise that rings true with what human always longs for, “The Little Prince” possesses an everlasting charm.

“The Little Prince”, through several types of grown up living in their own small ‘planets’, presents us anecdotes of grown ups’ desire and banalities seen through innocent eyes: greed, narcissism, quest for power, wisdom without real action, conformity without questioning. It begs us to question what growing up is all about – have we lost sight to what is important to conform with society’s expectation?

In a more essential level, The Little Prince reminds us about the importance of human connection and how we need it and are responsible to nurture it once it is formed. Connection is built through efforts and moments together. It is so personal that no one can fully grasp it unless you are the subject of that connection. Letting one’s guard down, the courage to experience, be it happiness, longing, suffering, loss or grief – that is what stops our lives from being like a machine. It may not be perfect and has its own problem but it makes our lives meaningful. 

Although this book was published a long time ago (1943), this book couldn’t be more relevant for today’s age. In today’s age that puts premium and value things based on tangible achievements and outlook, we often forget that “… you can only see things clearly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“The Little Prince” is not just a children book. It is a book that everybody should read, especially grown ups and is definitely one of the books that I will revisit time after time.

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What money can’t and shouldn’t buy [a book review]

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of The Markets

By Michael J. Sandel

Paper back, Open Market edition, 244 pages

Published April 2012 by Allen Lane

Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we allow corporations to pay for the right to pollute the atmosphere? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars? Auctioning admission to elite universities? Selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay?In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael J. Sandel takes on one of the biggest ethical questions of our time: Is there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale? If so, how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don’t belong? What are the moral limits of markets?In recent decades, market values have crowded out nonmarket norms in almost every aspect of life—medicine, education, government, law, art, sports, even family life and personal relations. Without quite realizing it, Sandel argues, we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. Is this where we want to be?In his New York Times bestseller Justice, Sandel showed himself to be a master at illuminating, with clarity and verve, the hard moral questions we confront in our everyday lives. Now, in What Money Can’t Buy, he provokes an essential discussion that we, in our market-driven age, need to have: What is the proper role of markets in a democratic society—and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets don’t honor and that money can’t buy?

In this market-driven age with the underlying belief of “The Invisible Hand” – market as the effective instrument to achieve public good, often we are struck with awe by how economists and market practitioners brilliantly think of ways to allocate goods in more efficient manners, finding new avenues to generate more revenue in ways that were unthinkable before. We tinkered with the idea of stationing economists or businessmen in our government to make everything more efficient, propagate development and prosperity for our country.

If belief in market is the ‘yin’, this book aims to be its ‘yang’. Through this book, the author wants to encourage us to think how far we market to permeate our society and aspects of public good that are at stake: “what is the proper role of markets in a democratic society, and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?”

What I like about the most about this book is the author makes his point without being preachy using layman lingo that reaches general audience (read: people who are not really familiar with philosophy).

He asks us to experiment by facing our moral conviction with jaw-dropping real-life market practice examples e.g. betting on strangers’ lives as demonstrated in janitors insurance practice (some corporates buy insurance policies on the lives of their workers and collect the death benefits when the employees die), schools pay students for each book they read to encourage reading, etc. In each case, Sandel poses readers with what “corruption” argument. First he lays down the civic goods and moral values at stake and what is the role of those civic goods and moral values. Then he argues how market practices can change and corrupt the meaning of honoured social practices including how we value ourselves and people around us in our society and how we view what we consider as a morally good thing to do (e.g. altruism, patriotism) by directing our thoughts to run “cost-benefit analysis” for everything.

Granted,  his arguments are sometimes loose and pose debatable aspects and this book leaves us with more questions than answers. However I think that is the whole point:  to provoke us to be and stay critical and question  in seeing how markets or commerce can “change the characters of goods they touch” that it is important to always have (public) discussions to deliberate “the meaning and purpose of goods” along with “the values that should govern them” in order to decide where the markets serve the public good – “where the markets belong” and where they corrupt the public good – “where they don’t”.

Here’s Amazon’s author interview with Michael Sandel explaining the premise of his book “What Money Can’t Buy”.”

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