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Book Interview Dan Ariely – The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves

Dan Ariely - The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves

New York Times bestselling author Dan Ariely recently released another thought-provoking book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves. Dan was kind enough to answer some questions. If you are not familiar with Dan, you should read his bio fully so that you understand the unique life experiences that formed his frame of reference.

Dan’s research on dishonesty is so wide-ranging that one could write several books on the topic! As such, a number of my questions are outside of the content of the book in order to stimulate further conversation.

The book opens with a discussion of Enron and how you first became interested in the subject of dishonesty. In Chicago, where Arthur Andersen was once based, the issue of Arthur Andersen’s demise while McKinsey survived with barely a scratch is still a frequent conversation topic. Did your initial research indicate anything about this specific topic?

As in the case with Enron, the consequences of our actions are frequently unclear; it could just as easily have been McKinsey to take the fall, but there was no indication of who would be responsible at the time that the dirty dealings were taking place. What is clear, however, is that when we make the decision to be dishonest, we are not thinking about consequences. When we see our peers cheating and getting away with it, and even being rewarded for less-than-angelic behavior, it begins to feel like an acceptable modus operandus. In other words, cheating becomes the new moral standard. In our studies on dishonesty, we find that the risk of being caught is largely irrelevant to people’s actions and that they can even ignore them altogether – especially when the consequences are vague and undefined.

You mentioned Marilee Jones, former admissions dean at MIT who encouraged people not to overstate their credentials while misrepresenting her own. Scott Thompson, former CEO of Yahoo!, was recently dismissed for an inaccurate bio. What forces are at play with these kinds of incidents?

With all acts of dishonesty, there is a motivation to benefit from our dishonest actions. On top of that, I suspect that there are all kinds of fuzzy rules about what is acceptable and what is not (and in CVs, particularly, there are no official guidelines dictating the rules). We are incredibly adept at justifying our actions (i.e., if I am working on an academic paper, does it count as a “Working Paper”?), and one justification quickly leads to the next. Once you’ve gotten away with the first dishonest step, escalation comes easily. These rationalizations add up and we wind up sliding down the slippery slope.

What is a person with a tendency to be more honest than average to do in this environment?

I think that that some people may be generally more honest than others, but even the most honest people succumb to the temptation to cheat when they are placed in the right circumstances. To reduce the likelihood that we will fall prey to these forces, we can create rigid and precise personal rules that guide our actions, particularly when we are in situations that tempt us to cheat. If we think we may be more likely to likely to lie to our significant others after a grueling day at the office, we can remind ourselves to be more honest when we walk through the front door in time for dinner. In the professional realm, we can try to reduce (and when feasible, eliminate) conflicts of interest.

With the incidents that you admitted to in the book (MENSA test on airplane, Air India, etc), has anyone perceived you differently or treated you differently due to your writing about them?

I am sure everyone loves me and no one thinks anything bad about me.

How has writing this book changed your behavior in terms of perceiving others and/or your own personal actions?

There is a high personal cost to thinking about dishonesty all the time. I am now excruciatingly aware of the conflicts of interest that my advisors (like doctors, dentists, etc.) face, and find myself being more suspicious of them. This becomes particularly unpleasant when the social aspect of preserving a relationship suffers because of a focus on such conflicts. I know that a treatment being prescribed by my doctor may benefit my doctor more than it benefits me, and my research has forced me to question every piece of advice that may be plagued with a conflict of interest.

I have also created stricter rules for myself in this regard. For example, in an effort to avoid any conflicts of interest in my own life, I refuse to do consulting for example.

I lived in the New York City area (Hoboken, NJ to be completely honest) during the 1990’s when Rudy Giuliani implemented the Broken Windows Theory with the New York City Police. I personally experienced the positive impact it had on lowering crime rates. You stated, “Although the Broken Windows’ Theory has been difficult to prove or refute, its logic is compelling.” Can you please elaborate on your thoughts on this difficulty?

I rely on experiments as a way to support or refute my intuitions about how we think and how the world works. Experiments are useful because, when done right, they can provide insight into our behavior in ways that mere observation simply can’t. There are many factors that could have contributed to the decrease in crime when the Broken Windows Theory was implemented in NYC, and we have no way of knowing whether the intervention was, in fact, the cause. While the regulations could have had an effect on crime rates, it also could have been another incidental change (or expectation) that corresponded with the timing. There could have been demographic shifts, economic changes, improvements in other areas, and so on that may have contributed to the decrease in crime. However, imagine that Giuliani had implemented the Broken Windows Theory randomly in some parts of the city and not in others, and then followed the crime in each area separately. If we saw a decrease in crime where it was implemented, we could reasonably conclude that the Broken Windows Theory was the cause. However, without this type of controlled experiment, there is simply no way to fully understand the root of the shift.

Some of your observations are statistical, while others are purely personal observational, like students promising to not visit non-class related websites during class and then violating the promise. There is a famous quote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” In your opinion, is it possible that some disciplines rely too heavily on statistical analysis instead of basic common sense observations causing potential undesirable effects?

There are undeniable flaws in the shifty use of statistics (and they can be easily manipulated when put in the wrong hands), but if I had to choose between observations and experimentation, I would take data over personal observations any day. I do believe in the strength of personal observations, as it gives facts both depth and illustration, but I would be highly concerned about any arguments that are based solely on observations.

Google (GOOG) prices Google Adwords internally and self-reports it for each individual merchant with little or no outside checks and balances. Much has been written about the potential issues of click fraud. Based on processes with no transparent check and balance mechanism, what are the incentives for one to be more honest or dishonest?

I am not an expert on Adwords, but an environment where actions are multiple steps removed from money and are about clicks – and without transparency – seems like danger zone to me.

In your research, did you find anything regarding the detection of dishonesty? Would a Bernie Madoff sized lie typically be harder to detect than a little white lie?

The question regarding the probability of being caught and the size of the potential punishments are very important. We looked so far only at the probability of being caught and found that it has no effect on the amount of dishonesty. Next, I hope to also study the effect of potential punishments.

Some have asserted that the issues of honesty and/or lack of detection of financial inaccuracies have played a role in overpricing events surrounding certain Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) of stock in the Internet era. Could you please share your thoughts and / or research in this area?

Without giving any particular example (and without any explicit research to support my opinion), I suspect that under-regulation of these “inaccuracies” is certainly a factor in the continuance of dishonesty in the workplace, and the social environment where some banks define the acceptable level of behavior for other banks is another contributor. In these situations, workers have lots of room to rationalize, they see their peers taking advantage of the flexibility, and they see no disadvantages to overpricing. There are no losers, and no one gets hurt.

Since sending the final draft of this book to the publisher is there anything you would like to add knowing what you know now?

Since finishing the book, I have had the opportunity to talk to a few “big cheaters” – people who acted very badly, got caught, and wound up in prison for a long time. My discussions with these individuals shows very clearly how good people can get trapped in bad situations and take one step in the wrong direction, rationalize their actions, take another step, and so on. And although they only take one misstep at a time, the trend escalates and at some point they find themselves in terrible situations with no escape.

From an outside perspective, we can easily look at the sequence of actions and say to ourselves that we could have never found ourselves at the end of these paths. But the big cheaters did not start stealing millions or misleading their shareholders. They started with one wrong step, and this is something that under the “right” conditions we could all engage in.

What advice would you give to new nonfiction authors seeking to write successful books?

I’m not sure that I am in any position to give advice, but what works for me is a mix of social science research, stories that link these to our daily realities, and implications for daily life.


I would like to thank Dan Ariely for his time and thoughtful answers. It would be interesting if everyone reading Dan’s book watched the classic movie Used Cars (Rated R) on DVD and used it to discuss the concepts in the book. It is possibly the best movie on trust and honesty issues ever made – back when movies still had a plot. It can create a basis for creating a larger dialogue about the issues in Dan’s book! Go purchase a copy of the book to read now! I look forward to learning more about his important research in this arena.

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Search Engine Strategies New York City, San Francisco & Chicago 2010 Session Pitch : Home Page Title Tag – Hot or Not?

The following session was submitted to Search Engine Strategies in January, 2010.  Hope you enjoy it.

Home Page Title Tag – Hot or Not?

Moderators: David Dalka and either Mike Grehan, Greg Jarboe or Stewart Quealy

The first thing one learns about search engine optimization is about the importance of title tags, especially the home page title tag. Yet when an experienced SEO surfs the web they often must stop and scratch their head at certain home page title tags! It certainly indicates a lack of understanding by senior management teams out there.

In this session everyone is the expert! We will share 30 title tags and URLs in 30 minutes. Everyone gets to tweet their impressions of the title tag for with the Twitter hashtag #sestitle!!! Then we’ll do Q&A and figure out what it all means. The benefits of this session are certain to include venting of pent up frustration, bonding with your fellow search marketers, extreme laughter and far reaching communication of the session to people far and wide not even at the Search Engine Strategies conference! Spread the gospel. Change the world. See you there.

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You won £850,000.00 GBP in Google new year promotion

Just received the following email in my Gmail account. How generous of Google.  I sent David Krane a note asking when we can do the photo opportunity with the big check, send the wire and all that fun stuff!

Date: Fri, Jan 8, 2010 at 7:56 PM
Subject: You won £850,000.00 GBP in Google new year promotion

You won £850,000.00 GBP in Google new year promotion. Ticket

12,Serial,numbers:BTD/8070447706/06,Lucky numbers:12-12-23-35-40-41(12). For
more info,contact,

Comments closed 2/25/2010

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Google Local Business Center Results Emailed to Random Business Leaders?

At 9:25 PM CST tonight I received the following highly surprising email from Google Local Business Center (I have covered the numbers to protect the web site traffic data and subject matter of Google’s apparent privacy victim).

Boscos Local Business Results November 2009 Smudge

Yes, the email is for November, 2009’s local business results for some business named Boscos. A query of Boscos indicates a number of businesses with that name. Due to the size of the views, it appears to be Boscos , the Restaurant for Beer Lovers with locations in Little Rock, Nashville, Memphis and Johnson City, TN.

The following are the Google Local Business Center data elements the email contained (in case the above photo doesn’t render):
Appeared in Google local search results
Users clicked on this listing
Clicks for more info
Clicks for driving directions
Clicks to your website

My first thought was this was potentially some kind of joke by someone at Google due to the subject matter resolving to  beer, which has a long history of pranks in SEO circles. However, a Twitter user, @phillydesign sent a tweet with the following tweet with a link to Tweetpic:

Truly having trouble deciding why I rec’d this Google Local email. Is it spam? Have the googlebots lost it?

Thank you Danya! You allowed me to see I wasn’t the only one that received this.  That was a big help. We obviously don’t know the scope of this story yet, but I can say it wasn’t just one random email to me due to this tweet. I contemplated the meaning and potential impact of the event.  Immediately, my mind raced to the Google CEO Eric Schmidt press conference which I attended with Quentin Hardy back at Search Engine Strategies San Jose 2006, The full transcript of that press conference is located here

Several things stand out to me about that event, most importantly that Eric didn’t seem like he had fully considered the magnitude of the AOL data breach situation and how to answer it. These are the interactions with reporters that led to Eric’s retraction of his earlier statements:

Q:       People read the article today about AOL [inadvertently revealing search query data for its users] and say, “Oh my God, Google or whatever is going to give my searches away and everything about me is going to be known.” Can what happened at AOL happen at Google, and what do you say to the searchers out there?

Eric:    Well, our number one priority is the trust that our users have and that would be a violation of trust, so the answer is, it won’t happen.

Q:       Hi. I just want to follow-up on the AOL [privacy breach. Did you speak to AOL about this?]

Eric:     I did not contact them on this because I was busy doing these other things. I’ve been deal mode, unfortunately. So the answer is I did not.

Q:       [Follow up question asking his opinion of the eventual outcome of this AOL breach]

Eric:     In many ways, it may be positive because we want people to know things. We don’t want people to wandering around saying everything is secure, everything is protected. So I think that the awareness is positive. The specific is obviously bad. So please don’t get my message wrong here. It’s clearly a bad thing. No one disagrees with that, but I think more awareness is good. From a Google perspective, again, this would not happen. I don’t want to criticize AOL, they’re a good partner of ours, and they should answer the specifics. I don’t know enough of the details.

It is awareness, awareness that people know what goes on online, that is a good thing. The fact that people now understand that credit card fraud – again, please don’t take this out of context. This is important. I don’t want to be quoted as saying “this is a good thing.” It’s not a good thing. Awareness of what can happen, that bad things can happen, is a good thing. I hope that’s clear.

Q:       [Question regarding press criticism or negative reviews of products]

Eric:     Well, again, we get our feedback from our end-users on every search, on every use. So with all due respect to all of us, my opinions, and what you all think – we collectively are not the judge – the user is the judge. So when we bring out a product, or a new service, we look at how end-users respond to it. So the question about AOL, the real answer is, it’s an end-user trust argument. So we will do things that are specific to maintaining or improving end-user trust. And that’s how we’re going to sort all this out. There will always be people who criticize Google and that’s fine. We think the criticism is healthy, we learn from the criticism. It’s all perfectly fine.

Q:       [Regarding the AOL privacy breach …] On one side you said it’s a good thing that people understand that’s potential fraud out there. On the other side, it won’t happen here. Now why won’t it happen at Google?

Eric:     Hang on. Since we’re all on tape, I retract my previous statement because it was obviously confusing and I apologize. “[Privacy breach is] a bad thing. It’s a bad thing.” How am I doing? “It’s a bad thing.”

What  I’ll never forget is his tone when he said that…

This is the latest in a series of controversies regarding Google Local Business Results. If the Google Local Business Results were sent to many people, this could likely be as serious as the AOL data breach.

This all raises alot of fascinating questions with immense magnitude regarding Google’s trust.

1) Why are November, 2009 results being mailed on January 6th, 2010 in the first place? Seems kinda late.

2) Why did I randomly receive Boscos Local Business Listing view report? Why are others apparently receiving random Local Business Center reports that aren’t theirs?

3) What privacy issues does this incident raise?

4) Will Google discontinue the Local Business Results box altogether due to the issues with quality of this data?

5) Has Eric Schmidt broken his commitment which he made on August 6th, 2006 during the above mentioned  press conference when he said “Well, our number one priority is the trust that our users have and that would be a violation of trust, so the answer is, it won’t happen.”?

6) What does the apparent lack of controls that may have caused this incident imply about the integrity of the Adwords platform and Google’s relationship with businesses?

7) Did any companies receive a competitor’s apparent local business center results? If so what are the implications?

8.) What effect, if any, will this have on consumer adoption of the new Google phone Nexus One?

9) This event appears to imply a violation of Google’s code of conduct section I, part C (Privacy and Freedom of Expression). What actions might Google’s board of directors take with management team for allowing this to occur?

If you received one of these emails with apparent data, please leave a comment below with the details. As I learn more, I will update this post…I look forward to hearing people’s reactions to this incident.

Update #1 – Mike Blumenthal has a post on this.

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Latency, Spam, Memory Leaks – Google What Are Ya Doing To Me Pal?

The following was reported today on the website Data Center Knowledge:

“It’s clear that latency really does matter to users,” said Mayer, the VP of Search and User Experience at Google and today’s keynote speaker at the O’Reilly Velocity Conference.

Do ya really think so Marissa? Having unnecessary captchas, massive memory leaks in gmail, outbound gmail that gets improperly classified as spam, adding SMS features to Google Voice with no instructions on how to turn them off in the email – that does matter. You’re absolutely right, Marissa! But my question is what are you doing about it?

This message appears on my screen several times a week, nobody at Google (and I’ve let several people know, can get to the root cause to fix it), financial analysts should be modeling the revenue loss. I’m tired of sorry, I’d like to see a permanent fix:

We’re sorry…

… but your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application. To protect our users, we can’t process your request right now.

We’ll restore your access as quickly as possible, so try again soon. In the meantime, if you suspect that your computer or network has been infected, you might want to run a virus checker or spyware remover to make sure that your systems are free of viruses and other spurious software.

If you’re continually receiving this error, you may be able to resolve the problem by deleting your Google cookie and revisiting Google. For browser-specific instructions, please consult your browser’s online support center.

If your entire network is affected, more information is available in the Google Web Search Help Center.

We apologize for the inconvenience, and hope we’ll see you again on Google.

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BMA B2B Marketing Conference, Google’s Sam Sebastian, Director, Local & B2B Markets

Sam announced in a public forum for the first time that I’ve seen search as a leading economic indicator. I have long dreamed of this prospect from the moment I first saw Google and combined it with my previous background in instituational financial services. I’m excited about this development and would like to openly ask Google when the content that Sam shared this morning will be available publicly for use on Google Trends?

Google’s data can now predict home sales and home sales numbers with search numbers.

The data can be correlated with stock prices at this time.

B2B search terms are growing. Conversions are bouncing back in Q2 2009!

Research, online and offline, big company c-suite, SMB and government sectors.

Commentary: First a note about the c-suite portion of the survey, I have concerns about an offline study asking senior executives about actions used for decisions being accurate. Or worse assuming the numbers were generated from search itself when it wasn’t. Executives might answer what they think is the best practice, even if they don’t do it to appear competent. I know of Fortune 500 CEO’s who still have their emails printed, so I have doubts about the number actually being this high. I’d love for this data to be 100% correct more than anyone, I really would, but I have concerns.

First findings form the C-Suite:

– 73% of the C-suite is using the Internet for information verification and vendor selection.

– 92% Internet exceeding, 87% at-work contacts for referrals.

– 64% of C-level executives conduct 6 or more searches per day to locate business information.

Video and podcast content usage is growing in importance.

Small and medium size businesses:

77% of business owners use search to find suppliers.

Half are using blogs and social media sites in some form in their business.


Searches are way up on stimulus, energy, health care and related issues.

Huge impact of search results, with just an Adwords ad:

28% Brand Association

36% Message Recall

Commentary:  I’d live to see an example with a smaller, lesser known B2B example.

With both a top organic and Adwords listing, incremental increases are significant

53% Engagement

43% Message Recall

63% Brand Association

Commentary: Sam Did not provide data on organic listings alone. I’d love to see if this was higher of lower than the Adwords ad alone.

“Mobile Search Growing Rapidly” Start testing…(audience did not react much)

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Search Engine Strategies Chicago 2008: Universal & Blended Search Engine Conversation

Kevin Ryan, SES Advisory Board Chair & CEO, Motivity Marketing

Dr. Larry Cornett, VP, Consumer Products, Yahoo! Search
Mike Grehan, Global KDM Officer, Acronym Media
Chris Blakely, Director, Client Services, comScore, Inc.
Todd Schwartz, Group Product Manager, Live Search, Microsoft Corporation
Jack Menzel, Senior Product Manager, Google

This is a live session blog from Search Engine Strategies Chicago 2008, please excuse any typos and/or fragments. Thank you!

Mike Grehan:

You need to think differently.

Vertical creep is pushing organic results down the page.

Eye Tracking shows that people are not scrolling the way that they used to.

This creates a problem, you need to be at the top of the listings.

Local business center creates opportunities for local businesses.

New paid search results like paid results.

Chris Blakely – comScore:

Leverage comScore search data shows traction of universal search efforts.

Feature sets of search expanding. 48% of searchers are seeing different types of blended search results from their queries.

Lower clicks on sponsored links with the exception of ecommerce and travel.

Organic search strategies need to evolve from that standpoint.

Jack Menzel – Google Product Manager Universal Search:

Universal search has the following elements:
Comprehensiveness – Images, Maps, News, Products, Video, Books and more
Relevance – Run every query against every index, decide what to show only after we collect all of the data
Presentation – Summarize the content in the most efficient way possible.

Recently, there have been made into search results pages.

Better Ranking – Universal search is just a subset of ranking.

What’s next?
Keep improving relevance
Help users explore
Improved results summary

What does this mean for web masters?
– Publish the best and high quality content that you have.
– Take advantage of prominent new verticals

Todd Schwartz – Group Product Manager – Microsoft Live Search:

Evolution of Search:
Search – Directories, Keyword Trends, Rich Semantics, User Experience
Market – Immature, Closed Trends, Open Item????
Consumer – Search, Keyword Trends, Actions

Deliver, Simplify, Implement

Showed Samsung lcd tv model – showed elements of a shopping review, rating and engine – an interesting change

Showed weather and Barack Obama examples

More engagement
Better reach
Higher ROI
Update Product and Business Info

Larry Cornett – Yahoo! Search:

Transformed from a static experience to a complete information in one search

Showed several Blended examples using Yahoo! Search:
Kyle Orton – Chicago Bears fantasy sports
Movies – including times and local listings
Beyonce – music videos on the search page
Sushi in San Jose
Barack Obama

Richer, more relevant links…

Searchmonkey – publishers collaborate, meaning behind the link, richer experience, relevant and personal, etc.

Yelp is a Searchmonkey partner. (How does this affect Yahoo! Local?)

The infobar – Steve Jobs example

Share structured data: Publishers > Searchmonkey > Tell your users

Why is blended search important?
Unmatched opportunities and control for publishers
Key step for building a smarter search engine with structured data