When I was young, elementary school and junior high, I had an older sister who died in a freak traffic accident. Her name was Sheila and she was super cool and sexy and sort of a rebel. I told a lot of friends and acquaintances about it whenever the occasion presented itself. It wasn’t a big deal, it never really got me anything but a little bit of sympathy, or like a cool tragic factor. Except it was a complete lie. I made it up. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I told the story the first time, or why I kept telling it, or why I would tell it to only certain people, or why I stopped telling it. And I never got caught.
Maybe it was part of me being a story-teller, taking an audience on a journey, seeing how they reacted. I’ve done this all my life. There was the story about how my grandparents had their name changed on Ellis Island, there was the screenplay I sold to a guy at Cambridge who translated it into Italian and shot the film that I still haven’t seen. And there was the time I hung out with Jake Gyllenhaal after a performance of This Is Our Youth in London (I actually did meet him and had a great chat with him by the stage door for about 5 minutes, but this story became epic in its retelling).
“This film began as a research project as Dan Ariely was finishing his third book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty,” says director Melamede, “Dan and I had been working together on developing a television series when he suggested we interview regular people about dishonesty. We invited a variety of people from different walks of life to share their stories.” You might not know their names, but you probably remember many of the stories, mostly ripped out of the headlines. There’s Garret Bauer and Matthew Kluger, a stock trader and lawer convicted of insider trading in which they made (with one other person) $32 million. There’s Tim Donaghy, former NBA ref who bet on games, some of which he officiated and got in deep with the mob. There’s Ryan Holiday, a media strategist who basically created the controversy against blogger Tucker Max (I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell), while working for Tucker Max. There’s Marilee Jones, former Dean of Admissions at MIT, and expert at spotting lies on college admissions… except she added a fabricated degree to her resume shortly after she was hired in 1979, and lived with that lie until she was exposed and resigned in 2007. And the list goes on. These are amazing interviews, and sometimes heart wrenching stories (like the mother who lied to get her children in a better school district and ended up in jail).
Even more fascinating are the series of test and studies Ariely has done, like giving people tests with the answers at the bottom, asking them not to cheat, and then rewarding them with cash for each answer they get right. Or having one person in the room finish the test in two minutes and get up and collect his money… does this motivate people to cheat more or less? If its in a classroom full of Carnegie Mellon students and the obvious cheater is wearing a Pitt sweatshirt? “Dan and his collaborators spent years in a lab environment designing original experiments that analyze and quantify people’s predilections to be dishonest,” says Melamede, “these accounts were emotional, endlessly varied and surprisingly relatable.”
I love this film. I was mesmerized by the material, and I rarely get drawn into documentaries that are so full of what one calls ‘talking heads’ – but in this case, these are people with real life experiences, many of whom have not really spoken this publically about it before. “The first weekend of filming had a profound impact on the entire filmmaking team,” says the director, “We were particularly taken aback by the stories of the people whose lives had fallen apart as a result of ‘dishonesty.’ We found these people to be unexpectedly and unusually – almost brutally – honest and open about the unraveling of their lies and the enduring impact of their actions. Their stories were much more complex and nuanced than we had expected. They made you think, ‘If I had been in their situation, would I have acted better?’” Throughout the film it becomes very apparent that the leap from small lies to big lies is not as great as one might think.
Lying is a part of our everyday life. If you are not doing it yourself, someone is probably doing it to you. I’m a life-long liar, I’d like to think I’m reformed, but the truth is, I lied this morning about being late to a meeting because of traffic. Traffic in Austin is awful and so that’s a very easy excuse. But really I was listening to a great prog rock song (i.e. extremely long) at home and I didn’t want to leave until it finished. Did I make the world a worse place with my lie? Probably not. But I also learned that I could get away with that, and maybe next time I’ll be later, or have a different story. Says Melamede: “Dishonesty is universal and the more we can recognize it in others and in ourselves, the better prepared we can be to do something about it.”
See this movie. You will have endless dinner party conversation material as well good strong scolding for your own personal behavior.
(DIS) HONESTY: THE TRUTH ABOUT LIES is out today on VOD. See it now at http://thedishonestyproject.com.