Director: Yael Melamede
Producer: Dan Ariely and Deborah Camiel
by Jon Cvack
Here’s a random documentary I came across on Netflix, which is shot as a combination of the styles of An Inconvenient Truth - with Princeton Behavioral Scientist Dan Ariely discussing (via presentation) his life’s research on irrational behavior (specifically lying) - crossed with Errol Morris’s Interrotron approach, with subjects looking directly into camera against a blank background. These subjects are introduced over the rolling credits, and we discover that they all participated in some form of lying - with a cyclist who was kicked out of professional cycling for doping; an insider trader who was sentenced and weeks away from going to federal prison; an MIT Dean of Admissions who lied about her alma mater and was fired after 28 years on the job; a viral marketer who used extremely creative means to blow up a crass and misogynistic gonzo-blogger; and a black woman who lied about her personal address to get her underprivileged kid into a better school, having gone to jail for the event.
My primary issue is that Dan Ariely seems like that arrogant professor who’s in love with his own fame, near plagiarizing the types of cute jokes Al Gore made in his documentary (i.e., “I’m Al Gore. I use to be President of the United States of America”), getting a few chortles to break up the heavier content. . During a fireworks accident in his youth Ariely was burned on 70% of his body, and when the nurses had to remove his bandages, they chose to do it fast and inflict unbearable pain on the young Ariely. The event was traumatizing enough to pique his interest in Behavioral Science, discovering that the nurses were more concerned with getting the job done quick than to care for the patient’s comfort. And so Ariel is shot both in his own version of the Interrotron, with the right side of his face fairly in shadow against the left side which is not. Added is that during his presentation, we only see the left side of his face, leaving you to wonder whether this was a filmmaker's choice (which I’d find hard to believe) or Ariely’s own self-consciousness. The issue is that for a man who professes about the large ways in which people lie and defend their actions, he’s also lying to us by not presenting himself completely. Perhaps this is getting far too much into the abstract, but for a film that’s literally about deceiving yourself just enough to feel comfortable, this choice seemed to utilize that exact behavior, showing us only a filtered portion of what was in fact the “real” and “complete” Ariely.
I enjoyed what I was learning, but by the time the documentary ended there wasn’t much in terms of resolve. For instance, the overall experiment that was manipulated in certain minute ways included having a group take a test, given only five minutes to answer twenty math problems that were designed specifically to be unsolvable within that time frame. At the end of the test, the subject would go up to the supervisor who would then ask how many they got right, and pay them one dollar per problem, then shred the test, leaving the student to think there’s no proof to otherwise contradict their responses. They would then take the test again. On average, people would exaggerate their answers by two or three (I might be a bit off with these numbers), and therefore this ended up costing the test takers about $50,000 over the course of the experiment.
This test was then changed up, to versions providing the answers at the bottom, to which test takers would inflate their grade by looking ahead, and then take another test with no answers provided, but now feeling confident; to having an actor in the class finish the twenty questions within thirty seconds, getting paid $20, to which everyone takes notice, and therefore makes them think they can cheat, or in a competitive sense, distort their moral compass just enough to inflate their grade where they feel comfortable; to paying people in poker chips first, which seconds later are exchanged for cash, but because it’s cheap plastic, caused even more people to cheat; and finally, having people sign an honor code contract or swear on the bible that they wouldn’t cheat, resulting in hardly anyone cheating at all.
What we learn is that 1) almost everyone cheats and lies, 2) most of these people think they’re still good and honest people, failing to see the contradiction in professing their honesty while admitting they’re lying within seconds of both statements, and 3) that once you start lying, the part of the brain that lights up and feels guilty, starts to diminish as the dishonesty continues. In the cyclist's case, he figured it was fine to cheat as all of his teammates were, along with 70% of the other professional riders. However, because he was caught, he faced expulsion, whiles others are still riding free, and adding to the paradox is that he - and most others - probably couldn’t have even become professional cyclists unless they started doping, as the bar was set so high on account of how many professional cyclists were doping. For the MIT Admissions Counselor, we explore the ethics over terminating someone for simply reporting the wrong college she graduated from (though was attending classes at), even though she was one of the most respected Admins in the entire college.
Check out Part 2...
BELOW: A far more bearable lecture from Ariely
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