An op-ed I wrote on the occasion of George Washington’s Birthday in 2015. I shopped it at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but, alas, they did not pick it up.
It should be noted that in Parson Weems’ account of the boy’s unflinching truth-telling – “I cannot tell a lie, Pa” – the circumstances were hardly conducive to any evasion of responsibility. A new hatchet in his possession combined with the felled cherry sapling near the family home provided all the circumstantial evidence necessary to indict the young George Washington.
Let us brush aside for the moment any concerns that the little vignette is itself apocryphal. (The account did not make its way into Weems’ best-selling The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington until the fifth edition.) The story still works and at more than one level. The virtue of courageous truth-telling also seems to presage the political wisdom of letting the story out, the better to manage its damaging consequences. And, indeed, in Weems’ spinning of the tale the elder Washington is deeply moved by his son’s honesty and all is forgiven.
Washington’s birthday might serve as a useful occasion to reflect on the value of honesty, but also to reconsider the persistent human tendency to shade the truth, if not obscure it outright. I was disappointed to learn recently that Jack Webb in his portrayal of Detective Sergeant Joe Friday on the Dragnet series never really insisted on “just the facts, ma’am.” But maybe it’s just as well, because who among us really wants to let the facts speak for themselves. And so we gild the lily. We take the unvarnished truth and, well, varnish it. Or at least some do, though the coat may be sparingly applied.
There is more than a little social science to support this contention, and it’s buttressed by clever experimental manipulations to measure how much pressure we apply to the boundaries of honesty or how far our transgressions will take us when and if we cross the line.
Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology, and his academic colleagues report several studies in which the occasion for telling falsehoods about one’s accomplishment is altered in ways that make the risks and rewards of dishonesty vary with experimental conditions.
In the lab, these social scientists give you wide berth to lie more or less or not at all. The risk of detection can be dialed up or dialed down or virtually eliminated. Even proxies for moral moments have their role in these series of experiments. The run-up to the moment of truth or its erosion can be “primed” with reminders of religious strictures or ethical codes.
The empirical findings are themselves rich and nuanced. They deserve a close reading, and Ariely’s findings have been popularized in his best-selling Predictably Irrational and his TED talks that have similarly found a huge audience online. But here’s his own pithy summary: “So we learned that people cheat when they have a chance to do so, but they don’t cheat as much as they could. Moreover, once they begin thinking about honesty – whether by recalling the Ten Commandments or by signing a simple statement – they stop cheating completely.”
A marvelous balance is on display here. Context obviously matters. Circumstances can nudge us toward higher ethical standards or tempt us play a little lose with the facts. I emphasize the diminutive here because, as Ariely would have it, we don’t cheat as much as we could. This seems, on balance, a good thing. Character counts, but so does our delicate self-image. We don’t tell the big lie in part because it would be inconsistent with our conviction, renewed every morning, that the face we see in the mirror is that of a fundamentally honest person.
My fellow social scientists continue to report intriguing empirical studies on what can erode your propensity to tell the truth. A recent research letter in the prestigious journal Nature focused on how one’s professional role might explain our decisions, at the margin, to be more or less honest. Alain Cohn and his colleagues from the University of Zurich, in a serious of experiments similar to the ones conceived by Ariely, provide suggestive evidence that “the prevailing culture in the banking industry weakens and undermines the honesty norm” – a finding that will no doubt lead some cynics to conclude that academicians do indeed have a complete grasp of the obvious.
The recent episode with NBC news anchor Brian Williams seems illustrative of just how wobbly human agency can be when measured against high standards for honesty. Memory and motive comingle so that details of the story change and accounts vary. How well should we in St. Louis know this?
Perhaps as details in William’s story have changed in small ways in his retelling of it, a new and fundamentally false one emerged. In the same way, the tensions inherent in his professional role of news anchor also became his undoing. There seems little doubt that those in front of the camera now command their multi-million dollar contracts as much for their star power as for their journalistic talents. The sober newscaster collided with the charismatic storyteller and truth was one of the casualties. To paraphrase the late Daniel Moynihan, we are all entitled to our own stories, but not our own facts.
 Cohn, Alain, Ernst Fehr and Andre Marechal, “Business culture and dishonesty in the banking industry, Nature, Volume 516, December 2014, pp. 86-88.