Book Review
Title: "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves"
Author: Dan Ariely
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2012: 304 pages; $26.99

Many people experience real estate transactions as riddled with suspicions of dishonesty. Is your home’s seller being honest and forthcoming about any "issues" the house has? What about your agent? Is she honestly representing how good a deal this property is? Are the comparable homes she presents you the most representative, or are they skewed?

But few people are as aware of what I see as the No. 1 dishonesty-related threat to their real estate dealings: their dishonesty to themselves about everything from how much house they can handle to how much house they can afford.

Dan Ariely, the Duke University professor best known for his books on irrationality, is back to tackle the topics of dishonesty and cheating, what causes them, and how they show up in the more complex context of our essentially irrational human nature.

Here are three of Ariely’s "honest truths" about dishonesty:

1. Little, moral reminders cause people to cheat less. In a study Ariely conducted with some colleagues at UCLA, students who were asked to recall the Ten Commandments cheated less on a task than their counterparts who were not asked to keep any moral code in mind.

After publishing the study, Ariely received a note from a student at UC Berkeley who related that her roommates stopped stealing toilet paper when she simply left a note in the restroom reminding them that it was not theirs to take. Several other experiments in business also suggested that simply asking people to sign their names to a pledge of honesty actually decreased their chance of lying.

Ultimately, Ariely concludes, simply reminding people of their moral obligation to be honest and/or asking them to acknowledge it at times when they might be tempted to cheat or lie actually does boost the chances that they will deal with you truthfully.

2. We cheat and lie more — even to ourselves — when we’re tired. Ever notice that you’re more likely to eat sinful foods and cheat on your diet when you’ve had a long, stressful day? And that you’re even more likely to cheat on your own promises to yourself to eat healthfully when you’ve been "good" on your diet all day, week or month?

Ariely points to a phenomenon called "ego depletion" to explain this, the idea being that exercising willpower and resisting temptation actually depletes our effort and energy. Accordingly, after a long day of making the right decisions, we have drained our self-control and the energy at our disposal to exercise it.

Ego depletion, according to Ariely, is also responsible for failing students’ dramatically increased chances of claiming a dead or dying grandmother at finals time, compared to other students: Their ego and energy depletion from trying and failing to keep up with their coursework also wears away at the morality that would normally stop them from lying about their grandmother being sick or dead.

Moral of the story: If you’re forced to face tempting circumstances (i.e., the grocery store), do it early in the day, before you’re too tired. And if you’re tempted to jack your price range up sky-high six months into your house hunt, sleep on it before you make an offer.

3. Conflicts of interest can turn normally honest people dishonest. Ariely relates the story of his own doctor urging him, vehemently and abrasively, to have a cosmetic procedure he didn’t want. Only once he investigated this change in bedside manner did he realize that the doctor needed only one more patient to have the procedure before he could publish the results of a study he was conducting.

He also relates the results of a study showing that even people who receive notice of conflicts of interest do not sufficiently discount the accuracy or honesty of the conflicted expert.

Long story short, Ariely finds, "When we face serious decisions in which we realize that the person giving us advice may be biased … we should spend just a little extra time and energy to seek a second opinion from a party that has no financial stake in the decision at hand." This can be as simple as bringing a friend or relative along on your house hunt, or obtaining a home inspection from a professional who doesn’t also work as a contractor-for-hire.

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