Futures Rambling # 93
By Laurie Aznavoorian
Being in America at election time is amusing to say the least, this is particularly true in this cycle when tall tales, misrepresentation and mudslinging have taken on new and often stratospheric proportions. Politicians behaving poorly is no epiphany, many would consider one’s ability to deceive a requirement for the job. What is surprising is the extent of the lies, the startling lack of evidence to support claims and the fact that any portion of the population believes them.
People have been suckers for a very long time, the world is filled with ‘pollyannas’ who believe the world to be a good place and unquestioningly accept anything they’re told – regardless of how absurd it might be. This is most definitely the case in life and politics, but it’s the same in business. What appears to have changed is the confidence that blatant lies are peddled and the hesitancy we have to call bullshit.
In business lying is manifested in myriad ways: misrepresentation of earnings, blurry lines between where money comes from and goes to and a host of other white lies that in the grand scheme of things is quite benign such as: stories told to encourage employees to join or stay with a company, grandiose claims of benefits and misrepresentation of the organisation’s culture.
When talking to companies about their workplace it is not unusual to discover considerable gaps between the narratives organisations peddle to employees and the reality of their day to day existence. This is especially true when it comes to claims of fairness, high moral standards, consultative approaches to the work they do and promises of equality. It is not surprising to find behaviour inconsistent with claims.
Before we jump to the conclusion that people are bad, everyone’s a liar, the world’s a rotten place and no one’s story is believable it may help to take an honest look at dishonesty. To do this I’ve referenced Dan Ariely’s book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty HarperCollins 2012. You may recognise Ariely as the author of the New York Times bestseller Predictable Irrational.
For those of us in the design industry Chapter 5 – Why Wearing Fakes Makes Us Cheat More was quite insightful, this is where it is explained that knockoffs are the equivalent to Oxycodyne or what is better known as hillbilly heroin. First it’s used for pain relief following routine outpatient surgery and the next thing you know you’re looking for a fix under a viaduct, that my friends is how slippery the slope is.
What happens with fakes is the ‘What-the-Hell’ effect begins to impact our actions as we pass our ‘honesty threshold’, which is the point when an individual begins to violate their own standards. It is easier to understand in the context of a diet. After inhaling a bag of tasty Tim’s Cascade Potato Chips one is more likely to abandon attempts to control behaviour and succumb to temptations to further misbehave. They say What-the-hell and wash the chips down with a beer.
Most designers I know are quite careful about specifying fakes, but they aren’t always as careful about how they represent their work or their firms. An individual who plays a minor role in a project suddenly becomes the design leader, or assumes sole responsibility for the design of a project that’s clearly the work of dozens of professionals. At a higher level a firm includes photos of a project in a submission that are not theirs or promises a specific employee to a client when they can’t physically work on the job.
You may say what-the-hell – that’s so little, it’s puppy poop, but Ariely suggests single acts of dishonesty should not be treated as a petty offenses. A first act of dishonesty is the most important one to prevent for it shapes the way a person views himself and their actions from that point on. He believes that if we do this society might become more honest and less corrupt over time. Good luck with that, he could have never known what was to occur in 2016 when he authored The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.
Social scientists refer to a concept called self-signaling. This is the premise that despite what we think, we don’t have a very clear notion of what we are. For example you interpret buying a ham sandwich for a beggar as a signal of benevolence, but the act in itself in neither an indication of your character or morality, nor does it define you. Similarly, sitting in a Le Corbusier lounge may make you think and act differently than you would sitting in a knock off.
Human beings have a very sophisticated means of deception, after repeating an exaggerated claim over and over they begin to believe it. This is something Ariely calls ‘cheating ourselves’ and is common behaviour in design firms. What becomes challenging for us all and therefore makes it hard to police is how frighteningly close self-deception is to extreme optimism or overconfidence, which are not always bad in our industry.
On the down side by deceiving ourselves we ignore failures and tend to blame others and outside circumstances for what are quite clearly our own shortcomings, obvious opportunities for growth are lost. In addition, an overly optimistic view may make one assume all is good and that can lead to not actively making the best decisions. Of course there are upsides to white lies, sometimes they are simply social niceties.
As interesting as Chapters 5 and 6 were, Chapter 7 was the most enlightening for an architect. In 2002 I read Richard Florida’s book The Creative Class and shouted hallelujah, finally those of us who create for a living would get their comeuppance. I didn’t think that meant we would rise to the top because we are the best liars, which is what Ariely implies in this chapter.
He begins by telling us to blame the left side of our brain for our incredible ability to confabulate stories. This is the side labelled ‘the interpreter’ that spins stories from experiences. As humans we’re prone to justifying our dishonesty using the stories we concoct about why our actions are acceptable. The decisions we make based on our gut are post rationalised and manipulated to further our cause. Sadly, the more creative we are, the more we create stories to justify self-interests.
This is such a disappointment for someone who believed creativity was a personal virtue to aspire to, one that enhances our ability to solve problems and open doors for progress. But what Ariely makes clear in Chapter 7 is that the same creativity that enables us to envision solutions to problems also causes us to bend rules and then create narratives to justify our dishonesty.
But wait – we are in the golden age of collaboration, surely increased input and monitoring from colleagues would be the ticket to keeping weak individuals with low morals on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately the research does not support this. Experiments on cheating in groups indicates people are more dishonest when others, even strangers, tend to benefit.
When it comes to collaboration there is also the psychological phenomenon of Groupthink at play. This is when a group of people wants so much to please one another that they become irrational or dysfunctional in their decision making. Critical evaluation and alternative viewpoints are supressed and the group often isolates themselves from outside influences to minimise conflict.
Groupthink creates an illusion of invulnerability and belief that your shit doesn’t stink – it’s not a good thing, particularly if the whole group has drunk the company Kool Aid and are lying! Think back to 2008 and the Financial Crisis to be reminded of how damaging groupthink can be.
So what can we do? Dan Ariely maintains there are rational forces we think drive our dishonest behaviour – but don’t, and there are irrational forces that we think don’t drive our dishonest behaviour – but do. Dishonesty is an irrational tendency that is pervasive, we don’t really understand how it works, nor do we see it in ourselves. But by better understanding what causes it we can begin to control it. Really – I’m not lying.
Ariely, Dan; The Honest Truth About Dishonesty; HarperCollins Publishers 2012