My mother went a little nuts when she caught any of her four children lying. Since this was almost a daily occurrence, she had opportunity to repeat, with great elocution, one of her favorite phrases, “Children, if you lie, you steal.” Mom linked these sins together like two sides of the same coin.
I think she may have made up the phrase. She was a creative soul when it came to anything with religious overtones. In fact, with so many of my friends and colleagues in the process of home foreclosure and short sales, I wonder if the economy might be in better shape today if Bernie Madoff had been a brother of mine. I looked into the research on lying and discovered most of us are guilty of stretching the truth in small ways. It’s as if we work on a sliding scale. On one side of the scale is our prerogative to want to receive a little more than we deserve, whether it be on a monetary or status basis. On the other side is our desire to see ourselves as honest, honorable people. We go through these mini-battles to determine what we can get away with while still feeling good about who we perceive ourselves to be. Dan Ariely is a professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University. In his new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves, Professor Ariely provides some insight on how most of us lie and steal just a little bit. This doesn’t make me feel very good, so I begin to wonder if heavy fines or greater enforcement efforts would make people (and maybe me) act more honestly. The research says, no, not much. What does work? Studies at UCLA show that one way to stop dishonesty in its tracks is to remind people of a moral standard, whether that be the Ten Commandments or some honor code, just before they make their decision. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Professor Ariely points out there are a few outliers (or out-liars) like Bernie Madoff, John Edwards and Mark McGwire who tell big whoppers that can have major influences on our society. There’s also a very small percentage of people who never tell a lie. Most of us, however, are stuck in the middle somewhere. Based on the research, I believe my mom was ahead of her time. The everlasting echo in my brain of “Donald Duffy Kuhl, if you lie, you steal,” helps me honestly address those little temptations we all must confront.