Have you lied to anyone lately? Before you rush to say no, think of the details from your day. Perhaps you texted someone saying you were on your way, when you were actually still getting dressed; or maybe you told your friend you already had plans when she invited you to a concert, but you did not. We do this every day on multiple occasions and yet, if someone were to ask if you are a liar, your response would most definitely be: no. This phenomenon is called “the fudge factor” according to Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, meaning you keep your lies small in order to maintain a positive image of yourself.
Ariely was working on a TV project just as his third book was coming out, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty – How We Lie To Everyone, Especially Ourselves, when he met the filmmaker and co-founder of Salty Features Yael Melamede. Together they began interviewing people who had been dishonest, trying to understand the motives behind their actions. “In the spring of 2012, we brought in about ten people over the course of a weekend —a judge, some lawyers, an actor and a number of people from other walks of life who had gone to jail and/or lost everything because of their lies. We were overwhelmed by the stories of those whose lives had fallen apart. Their stories were so human and so relatable. They gave us tremendous insight into the dishonesty we see all around us,” Melamede relates. “We learned that most of the people that got into serious trouble were influenced by many of the same factors that Dan studies in the lab.” Little did they know that almost three years later, they would be using their research to premiere a feature at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, (Dis)honesty: The Truth About Lies.
Melamede and Ariely’s film brings together the confessions of people who faced serious consequences after allowing an insignificant lie to turn into a life-changing catastrophe. The storyline, however, falls on Ariely’s studies and university lectures. The audience is educated about a specific concept and then exposed to a real-life situation that portrays that concept. One of the first examples we learn from is the idea that creativity and dishonesty come hand in hand. People will lie more after they have been primed to be in a creative mindset. What would that look like once it is brought down to the real world? Meet Ryan Holiday, ex-publicist for Tucker Max’s best-selling book, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. Holiday masterfully simulated a mass media attack on the book, following the premise “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” What was most compelling about his approach was that people actually started to get on board with the attacks; they started blogging about the book, going out on the streets and painting over the book’s posters (after Holiday had painted over the first few). The result was increased book sales and a booming career for his very creative self.
Ryan Holiday might be one of the exceptions in society when it comes to deception, and yet outliers like him are not what move the economy. In fact, it is the “little cheaters,” as Ariely calls us, who truly have an impact. Others would refer to this occurrence as the “power of the people,” which is the essence of any social movement. However, our refusal to believe that each one of us matter, that each one of our actions has an effect on the world, lays at the core of this idea. Melamede explains: “If we look at the biggest crises of our time, most of them have dishonesty at their core—the financial crisis; the Iraq War(s); the NSA privacy scandal, to name just a few—and the consequences are huge. If we can better understand dishonesty, hopefully we can do a better job of recognizing it and doing something about it —our own, as well as that of others.”
It might be easier to look at cases where the dishonest person has motives that are purely greedy and self-serving. Yet the boundaries of morality become a bit blurry when we are insincere about something we believe to be for a greater cause. According to Ariely, lie detectors won’t work when you are lying for the sake of charity. Take the story of Kelly Bolar, in my opinion one of most poignant confessions in the film. In 2011, Bolar was sent to jail after she used her father’s address to enroll her daughters in his district’s school. She preferred that school because it was better than the one in her own district, and it would be a better opportunity for her girls. It was a lie, that cannot be argued; yet to rip her action out of context is, in a way, lying to ourselves. We are who we are always within the context in which we live, and we cannot observe the human condition outside of its social, interconnected nature. What happens when we live in a society that is imperfect and unjust: how moral is it to be honest then? If we as a culture hold honesty as a value that brings peace and justice, perhaps the question to ask is not whether we lie, but what we are lying for.
In an answer to the question, how has this film changed you? Melamede replied, “I tell people that I feel that I am a human experiment. I have become a much more honest person as a result of making this film, not because I consciously decided it was the best thing to do, but because I have been thinking about it all the time through the work; it’s now the lens through which I have been looking at the world. Dan’s research suggests that being reminded about honesty makes people act better —in my own experience, that’s been very true.” Melamede and Ariely’s work will continue beyond the screen as part of a traveling installation called The Truth Box, where passersby will be invited to stop and share the truth about a lie they have previously told. If a Truth Box cannot be found near you, please continue to the nearest mirror.
Lorís Simón Salum is the Creative Director for Literal Magazine. Some of her projects include Literally Short Film Awards, Literal’s short film festival, Literally Everything, Literal’s podcast, and Ensoulment: A Diverse Analysis of the Feminine in Western Culture, Literal’s first feature documentary. You can follow her on Twitter at @lorissimonsalum.
Posted: May 22, 2015 at 6:00 am