"The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves" by Dan Ariely; Harper Collins, 304 pages, $26.99 hardback.
By Kathryn Canavan, Special for USA TODAY
Be honest. Would you cheat if you were certain you'd get away with it?
Best-selling author Dan Ariely says most people cheat - but just a tad. He calls it the fudge factor.
We cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self images as reasonably honest individuals, says Ariely, who teaches behavioral economics at Duke.
We want to see ourselves as honorable, he says, but we also want to benefit from cheating. That's especially true when we observe others around us cheating - fudging their taxes, boosting pens from the office supply cabinet, underreporting the number of miles they drive each year for insurance purposes.
Dishonest people don't always stand out like the crew at Enron. Nice people fib - and not just about golf, fishing and billable hours.
Take, for example, the case of the purloined profits at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The center's gift shop, run by about 300 theater-loving volunteers, was leaking about $150,000 worth of cash and curios annually.
A National Parks Service sting operation nabbed the culprit.
Make that culprits. It turned out that many well-meaning volunteers were helping themselves to merchandise and loose change just a little bit at a time.
Ariely and his team of researchers discovered dishonesty increases when we are a couple steps removed from the cash. The author asks what that could mean for our increasingly cashless society:
• The average golfer studied nudged the ball with a club 23% of the time, but it's far less likely a golfer would actually pick up the ball and move it, because there's no way to pretend that's not intentional cheating.
• When researchers placed six-packs of Coke and six $1 bills in dorm fridges, every Coke disappeared within 72 hours, but no one snatched the cash.
• A large insurance company told Ariely they suspect few people engage in outright fraud but many customers who lose property seem fine with exaggerating their losses by 10% to 15% on paper, so that 32-inch flat screen grows to 40 inches.
Consider Ariely's book a field guide to dishonesty - from you parking illegally to the dentist who insists those tiny craze lines in the enamel surface of your tooth require a costly crown.
The book also holds up a mirror to our own actions. Where do we draw the line? How "cognitively flexible" are we?
Consider these findings from researchers:
• Cheating may be contagious. Think Enron. Researchers say we seem to be able to catch social behaviors from others. We may recalibrate our internal moral compass and adopt others' behavior as a model for our own.
• People cheat more when they're tired or angry or otherwise depleted.
• People tend to believe their own whoppers after they tell them for a while. Marilee Jones added fictitious degrees to her resume to score her job as MIT's dean of admissions. Yet, as an author, she counseled readers about "being yourself" in applying to colleges and jobs.
The researchers have some suggestions up their sleeves to get more of us on the high road:
• Stop cheating before it balloons. As James Q. Wilson and George Kelling posited in their "Broken windows" theory, if you repair each broken window, large-scale vandalism is less likely to occur. Ignore small-potatoes cheating and it could grow.
• Researchers found less cheating among people who were asked to recall the Ten Commandments or sign an honor code pledge just prior to taking a test. They also found more people paid for tea in a break room when the sign requesting payment had a pair of eyes on it than when it was decorated with flowers.
• Ariely points out that many religions have rites that help us reset our ethical compasses - Catholics have confession, Jews have Yom Kippur and Muslims have Ramadan. He suggests secular versions would help potential cheats recognize their own actions and turn a new page.
Recognize people who do the right thing. Hold them up as examples.
Canavan is a freelance writer based in Wilmington, Del.