Internal monologue: Mike Daisey and the predictability of lies

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A lie told for good purposes is not inherently wrong. And besides, Mike Daisey didn’t lie.

That’s been Daisey’s defense in the fallout of revelations that he fabricated key details of a now-retracted radio piece on working conditions at a Chinese Apple supplier.

Can a person really lie and still believe that he’s telling the truth?

Absolutely, says Daniel Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University and author of the book Predictably Irrational.

Ariely explains that people cheat or lie up to a point at which they can do so and still feel honest. But as their lies succeed, the incentive to commit more lies grows, and the lies pile up – just as happened for Daisey. The disputed events in his monologue helped earn him an invitation to broadcast part of his show on This American Life, and Daisey then lied to the show’s producers during their fact-checking process so that his work could be broadcast to an even larger public.

“What we have here is somebody whose reputation and financial outlook could be enhanced by claiming extra facts,” says Ariely, whose forthcoming book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, details how people lie without thinking of themselves as liars. “Daisey’s own internal belief is not that he’s a liar, but that he is actually reporting the truth, although he hadn’t seen it in person,” Ariely says.

This can happen to anyone, and that’s why many professions have codes of conduct that mandate ethical behavior, such as journalistic standards that ban the fabrication of facts. These standards don’t exist to protect the public, Ariely says; they exist to protect journalists from the temptation to distort the truth.

“The moment we don’t have very clear ethical standards for any profession, it’s very easy for all of us to start going down a slippery slope,” he adds.

But Daisey is not a professional journalist, and he wants us to believe that there is no harm in lying in the service of a good cause.

The problem is that Daisey hasn’t aided a good cause; he’s set it back significantly, according to researchers who study corporate ethics and public trust.

Behavioral economists point out that we tend to make decisions and predictions based on the most memorable, recent and emotional information relevant to any topic, rather than evaluating all the information on that topic in a logical way.

Given the wall-to-wall media coverage of the retraction of Daisey’s piece, and the resulting feelings of betrayal among listeners who had been prodded by that piece to feel anxious and guilty over their beloved gadgets, the public is likely to become skeptical of the issue of Chinese labor conditions, says behavioral economist Uri Gneezy of the University of California San Diego.

“This is the best thing that could have happened to Apple, because now we’re left to be suspicious about everything we hear about what’s going on in China,” Gneezy says. “The damage done is huge.”

And Max Bazerman, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, points out that even slight misrepresentations of the facts taint those who are trying to do good.

For instance, some non-profits selectively report their data to convince donors that they are more successful than they really are – take a school that says that 92 percent of its graduates will go on to college, without mentioning that it weeds out subpar students along the way. The organization may not technically be lying, and it may have noble aims, but when the whole truth comes out, it taints the entire non-profit enterprise, says Bazerman, author of the 2011 book Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It.

“They’re doing really good things, but they’re degrading the ability of the donor community to understand their effectiveness, and creating reasons for donors to be skeptical about the non-profit community more broadly,” Bazerman says.

Amid concerns that people will use his downfall as an excuse to stop caring, Daisey has tried to guilt his audience into remaining engaged on the issue of worker conditions in China.

“If people want to use me as an excuse to return to denialism about the state of our manufacturing, about the shape of our world,” he wrote on his blog on Monday, “they are doing that to themselves.”

The reality suggests otherwise; that Daisey himself is responsible for the damage that he has inflicted to the cause for which he lied.

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Image: Three Pinocchios, courtesy palindrome6996/flickr.

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