'(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies': Film Review
From little fibs to million-dollar fraud
Why do people who think of themselves as honest lie? When do we give ourselves permission to cheat? Duke University's Dan Ariely explores many variations on these questions in (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies. Like a TED talk augmented by scads of testimonials from ordinary folks who've been caught in the act, Yael Melamede's doc is more lively than one might expect, and will appeal to those who enjoy Shankar Vedantam's "Hidden Brain" on NPR. In educational settings, it might well inspire some students to choose behavioral science as a field of study.
At the wonderfully named Center for Advanced Hindsight, Ariely and his colleagues study attitudes toward honesty by using things like "Matrix Experiments," in which volunteers are supposed to grade their own math quizzes and report the results to researchers. (In order to gauge their honesty, the researchers themselves lie — in a film that questions every minor form of deception, this fact is puzzlingly uninvestigated.)
Some of the things Ariely learns are common sense; many are not. The most engaging thing about his experiments is the way he tweaks each one over time, digging under the "yeah, so what?" revelation to draw provocative conclusions about the motivations behind behavior. Now and then there's an "aha" moment: In one simple reward-based experiment, volunteers were more likely to cheat if the money they were winning wasn't right in front of them, but a step or two removed. One imagines a stockbroker who wouldn't steal ten dollars off the table in front of him but who happily makes thousands in an illegal trade, where the dollars are just numbers on a screen.
The case stories Melamede finds vary in interest and in their ability to win our sympathy: Most viewers will be appalled that the young mother who lied about her residency to get her children into a decent school was sentenced to serve time in jail; fewer will feel much for the cheating wife or the dishonest accountant. (Many will chuckle, in the segment on the MIT dean of admissions who lied about her credentials, to see Brian Williams calling her out for fudging.)
Reliably, the movie's brightest moments occur when Ariely is on stage at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. He's smart, a good storyteller, and surprisingly funny. We should probably forgive him for all that lying he does in the lab.
Production companies: CNBC, Fourth & Twenty8 Films, Salty Features
Director: Yael Melamede
Screenwriters: Chad Beck, Yael Melamede
Producers: Dan Ariely, Deborah Camiel, Yael Melamede, Mitch Weitzner
Executive producers: Marc Schiller, Christina Weiss Lurie
Directors of photography: Tom Hurwitz, Marco Mastrorilli
Editors: Erin Barnett, Chad Beck
Music: John Dragonetti
No rating, 89 minutes