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Sunday, June 3, 2012

We have met the enemy and he is us

I read the reviews of Dan Ariely's new book "Why we lie"  in the WSJ last week. I have read and enjoyed "Predictably irrational" and "The upside of irrationality". I find Ariely is a provocative thinker and good writer. It is a good combination. I have yet to read his new work, not having access to it before the June 5th release date. What was described in the review I found tantalizing. In my humble opinion I believe that Ariely is a very clever experimentalist.  
Granted, having not read the book, it is not possible to judge the book critically. However, that does not appear to stop hundreds of WSJ readers from rendering a judgment, some of them very harsh. For those of you who have neither read the review of the book, the gist of the book is that given the opportunity, many people will lie and/or cheat, particularly if they see others lying and/or cheating. It is not a particularly flattering picture of human nature. I look forward to digesting the entire package.

The comments run the gamut from finding the conclusions unrepresentative of people to being nothing more than common sense. Are humans basically honest? In our own minds we are, meaning that when we operate at the edges of "honesty" we rarely cross the boundaries where we feel uncomfortable with what we do. However, what each of us is comfortable with may vary tremendously. Furthermore, without consistent feedback from our environment we will become more and more comfortable with more pushing the limits of stretching the truth and gaming to our advantage.  I suspect there is a spectrum of how aggressively individuals will look for their limits ranging from the absolute Goody Two-Shoes to Hannibal Lecter.  Most of us are somewhere in between.

One needs only to look as far as billing in health care to see this in action. When I was in training, manipulating the coding system to maximize your billings was viewed as highly unethical. One did not bill for everything one did and those who did so were viewed with great prejudice. Now those same maximizers are invited to medical conferences where the audiences now pay to hear them and collect CME. Are they dishonest? Depends on how you look at this. If your perspective is whether their billing practices follow the intentions of those who contrived the system, coding optimizers are clearly gaming and looking to push their actions to the edges of acceptable practice. The more that some agents push their limits means that others will find those practices acceptable. 
Further evidence of the human tendency to play fast and loose with the truth can be found at the PolitFact site ( The vast majority of claims investigated are not completely true and many (most?) are rated as untrue. I had a hard time find analytics on this site that give a breakdown of what they found. At the least we can conclude that within a very public realm people are fast and loose with the truth. It only makes sense that within more private realms it only gets worse.

In writing this post I remembered a draft post that I started almost two years ago but did not finish based upon a WSJ story by Eric Felton about cheating. ( In this story Felton wrote:

Europe was in a tizzy this past week. The ruckus involved the finale to last week's World Cup qualifying soccer match between Ireland and France. In the concluding moments of the game, French team captain Thierry Henry rescued a ball that was going out of bounds by grabbing it with his hand. (For some reason known only to the inventors of soccer, this is a no-no.) Shuttling the ball deftly to his foot, Mr. Henry set up the decisive goal. The referee failed to catch the French footballer's cheating, and after the game Mr. Henry proclaimed that the ref's error absolved him of responsibility: "I will be honest, it was a handball. But I'm not the referee. I played it, the referee allowed it. That's a question you should ask him."Mr. Henry's attitude is shared by athletes in just about every American sport. They believe anything the ref doesn't call is OK. With the burden of maintaining integrity entirely on officials, cheating is encouraged. Players hide behind a petty legalism that liberates them to cozen and counterfeit—or worse.

And how can I forget the cheating scandal that rocked the Atlanta Public Schools. The follow up from the Atlanta Journal Constitution  Follow up from the AJC suggested that similar cheating was ongoing basically everywhere they looked. I guess they bought into the Vince Lombardi dictum "If you ain't cheating, your ain't trying"

How do we deal with this apparent fact that most of those who we deal with cannot be trusted? It fits with what most of us know, that being trust may take years to create and can disappear in an instant. We need to understand when we are in situations where our trust can be backed by knowledge and when it cannot. Human nature is what it is and it is not likely to change, at least not in the near term. The world is navigable given the right combination of law, personal vigilence, and tools that promote transparency. No single tool will ever be sufficient and the best world requires every improving use of all three. 

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