Screening of Ariely's '(Dis)Honesty' examines morality's tug-of-war
Posted 10/20/2016 06:02PM

It’s easy to see the world, and especially human morality, through a binary lens. “Good people and bad people — and we’re all good people.” But as Dr. Dan Ariely illustrates in his documentary film (Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies, the reality is much more complicated.  

“Maybe we’re just bad people with not enough opportunities,” said Ariely, a Duke University behavioral scientist, in a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film at Durham Academy on Monday evening.

The screening — attended by parents, students, faculty, alumni and members of the broader Durham community — was made possible by Ariely, himself, on a rare day in the U.S. amidst a busy schedule of speaking about his work around the world. The event comes on the heels of a visit by DA Upper Schoolers enrolled in a course taught by Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner and Associate Head of School Lee Hark.

“Having followed Dan's work for more than 20 years, I felt so lucky to visit him in September with our students in ‘The Mission-Driven Life,’ " Ulku-Steiner said. “The course focuses on morality, happiness and productivity — a great framework for exploring honesty and the ways in which communities can nudge human beings toward or away from their most honest selves [and tenets of DA’s mission statement]. The relevance of that material for parents — combined with Dan's entertaining presence as a speaker — seemed a potent combination.”

In the Upper School’s Kenan Auditorium, the audience sat captivated, as on screen, Ariely examined what leads people to lie and documented the slippery slope from what might be seemingly harmless fibs to much bigger lies with life-changing consequences. The film weaves footage from behavioral experiments with first-person accounts of the motivations behind and the fallout from dishonesty. In interviews, subjects detail what led them to be dishonest and how, in many cases, they dug deeper and deeper into deception — from a stockbroker and attorney who got involved in a 17-year insider trading scheme, to a woman who was unfaithful to her husband, to a mother who lied about her address in order to get her daughters into a desirable public school.

Among those interviewed was former professional cyclist Joe Papp, who first waded into dishonesty after a hiatus from his racing career left him struggling to keep up when he rejoined competitive cycling. Papp was told that a certain physician could give him the help he needed. She prescribed drugs to give him an edge, and when those drugs became difficult to obtain in the U.S., he turned to a connection in China. Before long, Papp was sourcing the drugs for other cyclists.

“If you look at where he ended up in the end, he was a drug dealer — but that’s not what he really was,” Ariely said in the Q&A following the DA film screening. “What he was, was a cyclist who failed one day and went to see a doctor. The rest of it is almost kind of predetermined. This idea of what is our collective moral nature and where could we have ended if we were exposed to other circumstances is certainly frightening.”


The Upper Schoolers who met with Ariely at his Center for Advanced Hindsight left with a slew of insights on the value of honesty and how to most effectively discourage dishonesty in others. For senior Quade Lukes, the discussion with Ariely led him to think about one’s “long-term image” as it relates to honesty and achievement.

“Nobody will care down the road if you got a 100 on your English quiz. However, as soon as you are labeled a liar, cheater or a whistle-blower, then you begin to lose people's respect and most likely friendship,” Lukes said. “I think a lot of what I have heard Dr. Ariely say in videos and from our meeting is that the person you are when nobody is looking, or when you think nobody is testing you for being a cheating little weasel, is very important.”

In other student reflections penned after the meeting, many students commented on Ariely’s assertion that consistently levering small punishments for small lies is more effective than only occasionally levering bigger punishments for bigger lies, especially as they pertain to school honor codes. An example that Ariely offered about texting while driving was particularly interesting to junior Ava Pacchiana.

“We are often tempted to check our phones while driving, despite the known risk of possibly killing someone else or killing yourself, because these things seem so improbable of happening. Therefore, the guarantee of getting to see who is messaging you outweighs the small chance of getting into a serious crash,” she said. “Just hearing this theory made me more aware of every decision I make that could possibly have a very detrimental impact but the chance of this impact is low and the guarantee of another factor is tempting — and I weigh the beneficial guarantee over the possible destruction.”

For Dr. Gerty Ward, assistant director of DA Middle School and a science teacher, the ideas raised by the (Dis)Honesty screening and Q&A were fascinating.

“Dr. Ariely uses deceptively simple yet truly elegant experiments to show that (dis)honest behaviors are not about being a good or bad person, they're about being human! All kinds of people engage in cheating behaviors,” she explained. “Being (dis)honest is more about the situation and what is going on in a person's life at the time. For example, he has shown that how the cheating opportunity is presented often determines whether a person will cheat.”

The topic is particularly relevant to Ward’s work; she recently led an effort for the Middle School to rewrite its honor code with the help of students, and character education lessons are a regular part of student gatherings and programming.

“In the Middle School, we start all academic dishonesty conversations by assuring the student that they are not bad, and they are not alone,” she said. “We then work to find out the reason for the (dis)honesty so we develop strategies to help that student succeed in the future.”

An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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