|WORLDVIEW: The Truth About Lying|
When you give a Panama cop a bribe to escape a ticket, or do some creative accounting with your tax declaration and go to bed feeling happy, you will be part of a growing trend of self deceit and there are consequences.
We lie. We cheat. We bend the rules. We break the rules. And sometimes, as we’ve seen in Greece, it all adds up. But, remarkably, this doesn’t stop us from thinking we’re wonderful, honest people. We’ve become very good at justifying our dishonest behaviors so that, at the end of the day, we feel good about who we are. This tendency is only getting worse, and, as innocent as it may seem, the consequences are becoming more apparent and more serious.
Cheating has little to do with personal gain and everything to do with self-perception. We need to believe that we’re good people, and we’ll do just about anything to maintain that perception. Sometimes, this means behaving in ways that align with our sense of what is right. Other times, it means crossing that line, but turning a blind eye to our behavior, or rationalizing it in some way that allows us to believe it’s OK.
Let’s say your friends asks you how they look, and you don’t want to hurt their feelings, so you lie. You fudge it. You don’t necessarily say, “Wow! You’ve never looked better,” but you certainly don’t tell them the full truth. And you have no problem rationalizing your fib: It’s the right thing to do, because it will make your friend feel better.
Perhaps you didn’t look at them as closely as you could have, or were standing further away. These sorts of details would make it easier to justify your lie, and help you sleep at night without giving this a second thought.
The same kind of self-deception applies to wider-scale cheating, although the motivations are usually different. In more professional scenarios, our dishonesty is typically fuelled by the desire for wealth or status, rather than concern for the reputation of others. Greed is a powerful motivator.
About a month ago, American businessman Garrett Bauer was sentenced to nine years in prison for insider trading. It was a terrible moment for me. Garrett was one of the people I had spoken to in researching the nature of dishonesty, and to see the consequences of his actions catch up to him that way was a brutal reminder of just how out of hand cheating can get.
Garrett traded stocks on insider information for about 17 years. He started off small, as people tend to do, and never considered that he might get caught. As time went by, it got easier and easier for him to cheat the system free of guilt. But then he got caught, and now it’s too late to correct his mistakes.
That night, after his sentencing, I couldn’t sleep. I curled into the fetal position – the world looked terrible to me. I had spent the day before in New York giving talk after talk about cheating and dishonesty, how widespread they are, and how little appetite we have to start changing things. With all that cheating weighing on my mind, Garrett’s sentence was an additional terrible blow. It was overwhelmingly sad, and a very painful night.