Ariely describes these experiments and the results in a new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone — Especially Ourselves. He talks with NPR's Robert Siegel about how society's troubles aren't always caused by the really bad apples; they're caused by the scores of slightly rotting apples who are cheating just a little bit.
On the traditional, cost/benefit theory of dishonesty
"The standard view is a cost/benefit view. It says that every time we see something, we ask ourselves: What do I stand to gain from this and what do I stand to lose? Imagine it's a gas station: Going by a gas station, you ask yourself: How much money is in this gas station? If I steal it, what's the chance that somebody will catch me and how much time will I have in prison? And you basically look at the cost and benefit, and if it's a good deal, you go for it.
"On why the cost/benefit theory is flawed"
It's inaccurate, first of all. When we do experiments, when we try to tempt people to cheat, we don't find that these three elements — what do we stand to gain, probability of being caught and size of punishment — end up describing much of the result.
"Not only is it a bad descriptor of human behavior, it's also a bad input for policy. Think about it: When we try to curb dishonesty in the world, what do we do? We get more police force, we increase punishment in prison. If those are not the things that people consider when they think about committing a particular crime, then all of these efforts are going to be wasted."
Read the rest of this revealing Ariely's new book interview here: TruthLie