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Film Review: ‘(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies’

Bestselling academic Dan Ariely is our guide through the science and psychology of fibbing in Yael Melamede's entertaining documentary.

Dan Ariely, Garett Bauer, Matthew Kluger, Kelley Williams Bolar, Tim Donaghy, Ryan Holiday, Marilee Jones, Erika Nelson, Joe Papp, Etgar Keret, Walter Pavlo, Murali Doraiswamy, Francesca Gino, Nina Mazar, Michael Norton, Tali Sharot.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2630898/

Any era is a good one for liars, but folks on every point of the moral or political spectrum are likely to agree: We are living in a fibbers’ renaissance. As Yael Melamede’s documentary notes, various bendings of the truth have among other things recently led us into war, crashed the economy, and allowed potentially catastrophic despoiling of the planet to continue more or less unchecked. “(Dis)Honesty” asks how and why so many people excuse themselves from the gospel truth, whether via everyday white lies or the kinds of escalating whoppers that can (or should) land a stockbroker in prison. There’s no revelatory takeaway here, but this entertaining mix of anecdotal evidence, academic research and current affairs is a diverting survey that should hold appeal for niche buyers in various formats.

Our guide is Duke U. professor of psychology and behavioral economics Dan Ariely, a bestselling author whose specialty is probing what motivates irrational and/or dishonest human behaviors, as well as their impact on the economy. He’s an accessible, good-humored speaker, and his lecture on such matters provides the structural glue that unites a series of real-world illustrations.

Among those telling their own stories of ethical lapse are Joe Papp, a pro cyclist who caved to using performance-enhancing drugs like everyone else, but unlike most got caught at it; “media strategist” Ryan Holiday, who successfully fabricated a series of controversies to promote “fratire” book “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell”; NBA referee Tim Donaghy and Wall Street trader Garett Bauer, both of whom made the mistake of graduating from participating in inherently corrupt systems to manipulating them for personal financial gain. Marilee Jones’ ability to “spot liars” served her very well in 28 years as the director of admissions for MIT, but that stint went down in flames when it emerged that she had falsified her own academic credentials.

On a humbler scale, there are confessions from a Florida housewife who drifted into an extramarital affair when her husband refused to address his neglectful behavior, and a struggling Ohio mother who fibbed about her place of residence in order to get her very bright young daughters enrolled in a superior school district. (The fact that the latter actually underwent criminal prosecution after she’d withdrawn her kids from the school suggests how unequally justice is applied to different offenses against truth.)

A common thread in these disparate tales is that lying is a slippery slope — as Ariely says, everyone practices “the fudge factor” to a degree, cutting truthful corners in ways that are generally minor and harmless. (An extreme example of the virtuous “white lie” is told by Israeli author Etgar Keret, who relates calming an hysterical woman on a very turbulent flight by claiming to be an aeronautics engineer, and hence certain that they were in no real danger.) But when there is no consequence to lying because “everybody does it,” a person in the right tempting circumstances can easily find themselves graduating from wee fibs to full-on criminal fraud.

As the experiments of Ariely and colleagues point out, there is surprisingly little difference found between cultures, nations, genders, et al., when it comes to dishonesty: While consistent, major-league cheaters are relatively few, just about everyone is willing to practice the occasional small-scale deceit. He amusingly describes exercises in which students were asked to take a test, their participation pay rising the more questions they got right; when they thought no one but themselves would see the answers, they typically exaggerated their success by a credibly modest degree. That may be a far cry from the phone company book-cooker who steers the profits to a personal Cayman Islands account — but the triggering impulses are the same, whether they lead to petty deceptions or world-class ones.

As such dodges do cost society billions in lost revenue, Ariely has also staged experiments showing how easy it is to subtly and effectively discourage people from cheating, calling on them to remember the basic ethical rules they usually think they live by anyway. Belief in the trustworthiness of others, too, has significant economic benefits. We’re shown an Indian grade school where “honesty shops” selling school supplies on an honor system inculcates students in the virtues of acting with integrity — even when there’s little to be risked and something to be gained from doing otherwise. (One suspects that people viewing “(Dis)Honesty” would be less inclined to lie for at least a few hours afterward, too.)

The lively, professional package features some brief animations in various styles. Pic could have used a more offbeat score than John Dragonetti’s adequate but routine synth-based one.

Film Review: '(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, April 21, 2015. (In Hot Docs Film Festival.) Running time: 90 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Bond/360, CNBC and the (Dis)Honesty Project presentation of a Salty Features, CNBC and Fourth & Twenty8Films production. Produced by Dan Ariely, Deborah Camiel, Yael Melamede, Mitch Weitzner. Executive producers, Marc Schiller, Christina Weiss Lurie. Co-producers, Meghan Lisson, Holly Meehl, Ella Nuortila.

Crew: Directed by Yael Melamede. Written by Chad Beck, Melamede. Camera (color, HD), Tom Hurwitz, Marco Mastrorilli; editors, Erin Barnett, Beck; music, John Dragonetti; animation, Gary Leib; sound, Peter J. Miller; supervising sound editors, Tom Efinger, Abigail Savage; sound designer, Savage; re-recording mixer, Efinger.

With: Dan Ariely, Garett Bauer, Matthew Kluger, Kelley Williams Bolar, Tim Donaghy, Ryan Holiday, Marilee Jones, Erika Nelson, Joe Papp, Etgar Keret, Walter Pavlo, Murali Doraiswamy, Francesca Gino, Nina Mazar, Michael Norton, Tali Sharot.

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