Why Some People Lie More Than Others We all lie. But what separates the average person from the infamous cheaters we see on the news? Dan Ariely says we like to think it's character — but in his research he's found it's more often opportunity. Dan Ariely is a professor at Duke University and the author of the book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves. We spoke to him in March 2017.
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Liar, Liar, Liar

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Liar, Liar, Liar

Liar, Liar, Liar

Liar, Liar, Liar

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/805808486/805815873" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Dan Ariely has found that "what separates honest people from not-honest people is not necessarily character, it's opportunity." Gary Waters /Getty Images/Ikon Images hide caption

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Gary Waters /Getty Images/Ikon Images

Dan Ariely has found that "what separates honest people from not-honest people is not necessarily character, it's opportunity."

Gary Waters /Getty Images/Ikon Images

When we think about dishonesty, we mostly think about the big stuff.

We see big scandals, big lies, and we think to ourselves, I could never do that. We think we're fundamentally different from Bernie Madoff or Tiger Woods.

But behind big lies are a series of small deceptions. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, writes about this in his book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.

"One of the frightening conclusions we have is that what separates honest people from not-honest people is not necessarily character, it's opportunity," he said.

These small lies are quite common. When we lie, it's not always a conscious or rational choice. We want to lie and we want to benefit from our lying, but we want to be able to look in the mirror and see ourselves as good, honest people. We might go a little too fast on the highway, or pocket extra change at a gas station, but we're still mostly honest ... right?

That's why Ariely describes honesty as something of a state of mind. He thinks the IRS should have people sign a pledge committing to be honest when they start working on their taxes, not when they're done. Setting the stage for honesty is more effective than asking someone after the fact whether or not they lied.

Ariely says the research about honesty isn't all negative. We have plenty of opportunities to lie, cheat and steal, without getting caught. And we usually don't take those opportunities.

"There's a lot of good in us," he said. "In fact, the surprising thing for a rational economist would be: why don't we cheat more?"

Additional Resources:

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely, 2012.