VINE VOICEon 13 July 2012
I find Dan Ariely's books to be enjoyable, enlightening and mildly annoying, in equal measures. The mildly annoying bit is surely unfair (and unreasonable) of me. I do tend to find Ariely's determinedly jaunty tone a bit wearying: he writes as if his readers were a pleasant but especially dim-witted intake of undergraduates. This is probably the secret of his publishing success: as the great H. L. Mencken said, 'No one has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people' (you and me, in this context). I am also a bit resistant to the notion that things about the human condition with which we are entirely familiar cannot be taken to be really true until they have been 'proved' to be true by psychologists. Most of the simple but ingenious experiments of Mr Ariely and his fellows tend to confirm several facts about human nature of which we were, in general, already aware. I don't have a problem with that and I enjoyed reading the book. I doubt, however, if you will find that you have learned anything about human nature that you had not already learned from your own experience, and nothing that Ariely and his team 'discover' about our behaviour has not been rather more convincingly portrayed by our great playwrights and novelists.
Ariely, to be fair, sets out to write popular science, and he succeeds admirably, although - as ever with the genre - some of the science gets lost in amongst the popularisation. All of his experiments are thought-provoking, though some of his conclusions are more compelling than others. Some leave one wondering, 'Can we really draw that conclusion so emphatically from that data?' Be that as it may, the ingenious tests seem to prove Ariely's central point: pretty much anyone will cheat if they think they are going to get away with it but that, nevertheless, 'most people cheat just enough to still feel good about themselves.' Our notion of ourselves as being decent and upright folk will only withstand so much evidence to the contrary.
Ariely enhances this core tenet with elaborations about social effects, all of which are interesting but few of which are earth-shattering (if we see that other people are cheating, we're more likely to join in, especially if they are part of our social set; if we feel we're being observed, we're less likely to cheat) and with some of those interesting but occasionally slightly dubious other conclusions: willpower is limited and can be depleted, and we are more likely to succumb to temptation when we have already forced ourselves to resist a number of previous temptations (on that analysis, how does anyone ever give up smoking?); wearing sunglasses that we know to be fake designer sunglasses makes us more likely to cheat ('the wearers of fake sunglasses showed a much greater tendency to abandon their moral constraints and cheat at full throttle'). The moral of this tale would seem to be never to ask a friend wearing fake sunglasses to look after your handbag in the pub garden while you go to the loo.
All that said, this is a jolly and informative romp through some genuinely interesting current psychological thinking, entertainingly and readably presented. I have to declare an interest at this point: one of the chapters in this book is called `Blinded by our own motivations' and, in another chapter, Ariely writes that, 'We may not always know why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel.' As the man who has written a book called Blindsided on exactly that theme, I cannot help but say, in this particular context, that Dan Ariely is clearly a deeply perceptive and highly intelligent chap (demonstrably so, since he agrees with me).
I do, however, have a few gripes. Ariely concludes, as a result of a particular set of experiments, that people with a particularly creative mindset are more likely to deceive than others: their enhanced 'story-telling' abilities allow them to be comfortable with various version of reality that may not exactly coincide with what you and I thought had actually happened. ('The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories about how we are doing the right thing, even when we are not.') But then the psychologists discover that one sees the same effect in people who have been merely 'primed' for creativity by being exposed to a number of carefully-chosen words in the course of the experiment: 'creative', 'original', 'novel', 'new' and 'ingenious', for example. Since Ariely is attempting to make a conclusion based on the fundamental structure of individuals' brains (creative people have more white matter in their noddles and are therefore able to 'make more connections between different memories and ideas' than other people) it seems a bit cavalier (and unlikely) to suggest that merely introducing the notion of creativity via a few words can reconstruct conditions that he had previously argued were the result of the intrinsic physical make up of some individuals' brains.
I also wonder what Ariely is even thinking of when he says 'So where do we stand on self-deception? Should we maintain it? Eliminate it?' I thought that everything that Ariely had said in the book up until this point (page 158) had made it pretty clear that we didn't have much choice in the matter. And Ariely seems to want to discover the 'function' of self-deception. One of his core conclusions is that 'self-deception is similar to its cousins, overconfidence and optimism' in that it can help us deal with stress, carry out tedious tasks and get us to try new and different experiences (if we didn't deceive ourselves, we would realise that we were doomed to either boredom or failure, or both).
My fundamental complaint is that Ariely seems to begin with the premise that all human beings are essentially honest and then to drop his carefully manufactured bombshell (We are all far less honest than we think!) on our unsuspecting heads. I'm also far from sure that self-deception has any kind of benign 'function', as Ariely suggests: as social animals, most of us are aware that mere anarchy is the route to social disaster, but that doesn't mean that we can't help ourselves to just a little bit of something that might technically belong to somebody else. As self-aggrandising idiots, we also think that we are capable of anything. This leads us (happily) to attempt things that we should realise that we are incapable of. As Ariely says, 'we persist in deceiving ourselves in part to maintain a positive self-image. We gloss over our failures, highlight our successes (even when they are not entirely our own), and love to blame other people and outside circumstances when our failures are undeniable.' That is a lovely summing up of a critical part of the human condition, but I am uncertain about Ariely's suggestion that we have any choice as to whether to deceive ourselves or not, or that self-deception is some kind of advantageous evolutionary pressure that helps us to cope with the realities of human life. I feel rather that self-deception is simply a part of the human condition and that we might be far more evolutionarily successful (but also far more boring) if, like the Vulcan, Spock ,from Star Trek, we didn't actually practice self-deception in the way that we do.
But I wouldn't be making these moans and gripes if Ariely's book hadn't set me off on a number of trains of thought. If you are interested in human behaviour and psychology, you will enjoy this book.