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An orderly deconstruction of our notions of dishonesty, but perhaps a little too lab-based
on 3 August 2012
Dan Ariely, author of the marvellous Predictably Irrational and thoughtful commentator on human foibles, presents his latest book as a comprehensive review of the factors affecting honesty (and cheating). As always, his writing is accessible, entertaining, and often humorous. Where this book differs a little from others I have read of his or that are in this field, is that there is a significant focus on a particular set of experiments that Ariely and his team have conducted in his lab. The task involves having participants complete a very difficult task but to allow them to take extra credit for completing more problems within the task then they actually did, with each new experiment given a slight tweak, such as the presence of a collaborator, an observer, or other influences such as being given fake designer sunglasses to wear. As a scientific method within social science, this is a very reasonable approach and this content would make an excellent and very entertaining review in a scientific journal.
However, for a popular science book I felt that continually coming back to minor variations on what is (as Ariely admits) a very controlled situation, limits the applicability of the findings somewhat. Perhaps this is a sparse field, but there seemed less reference in this book to the experiments of other researchers then I remember in books like Predictably Irrational. Another area where Ariely is most engaging is in his own life experiences and anecdotes, which peppered his earlier work but which seem more muted here. In theoretical terms there is really only reference to two major theories - the "broken windows theory" - which as Ariely admits has little or unclear evidence behind it, and the Simple Model of Rational Crime (SMORC), a straw man argument from theoretical economics if ever there was one, which suggests that humans are automatons who should steal from little old ladies whenever the benefits outweigh the costs. This is a shame as there are examples from sociobiology such as reciprocal altruism in primates which might have been instructive, and our interactions with others also involve more complex processes such as in-group / out-group identification. "Cognitive dissonance" is alluded to but not really explored deeply. Perhaps, as a "popular science" book, such considerations are out of scope or too broad for the level being aimed at, but there are many excellent books that attempt to explore the area of morality from a broader scientific basis starting with the Selfish Gene (Dawkins), the Origins of Virtue (Ridley), and Collapse (Diamond) to name a few. I do enjoy Ariely's work a lot and would certainly recommend this for a gentle introduction to thought about this area, but might direct the more hardcore nerd elsewhere.