From time to time in this column we have talked about the importance to a real estate brokerage of striving to foster a climate of honesty and morality. How important is it? According to an extensive study by the National Association of Realtors® (NAR), "Honesty and trustworthiness is ranked the most important factor when choosing an agent to work with" (2011 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, p.58). It is relevant, then, that we pay attention to some of the intriguing (and occasionally disturbing) points made in the recent book The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty by Dan Ariely.
Previously we discussed here an earlier book by Ariely, Predictably Irrational, and how its messages could be related to the real estate business. Ariely is a behavioral economist. He poses and pursues interesting questions about what people do and are likely to do in a variety of market-related situations. Today we are going to look at some of the things Ariely has to report about the relationship between "faking it" - exaggerating or being deliberately misleading about one’s status - and engaging in other acts of dishonesty.
We couldn’t, of course, review here in detail the methods and controls involved in his and his colleagues’ experiments. For that one must go to the text. Here, the best we can do is to summarize some of the striking results.
The basic result, and the bedrock against which various derivative hypotheses are tested, is that, other things being equal (for example, that no one appears to be seriously hurt) most people are willing to be somewhat dishonest in order to better themselves. (This may be one of those duh findings of social science.) The reward does not even have to be significantly large - it might be just a higher score on a performance test, even though the test has no known bearing on anything else. Moreover, it is important to note the "somewhat dishonest" factor. Most people will not be grossly dishonest - e.g. engage in blatant cheating - even if the prospect of being caught is clearly zero.
Against that background, we consider today’s case in point: people who engage in fakery about themselves show a much greater than normal willingness to be dishonest about other, unrelated matters. The real kicker is that the fakery involved does not even have to be self-chosen.
Ariely reports on an experiment in which student participants were given some chic, well-known, branded accessories (in this case, sun glasses) to wear. Although they were all genuine, one group was told they would be wearing (very good) knock offs; others were told they had the real article; and a third group was not told anything regarding authenticity. Those with the "fakes" were not to reveal that fact.
After a period of wearing the items, the three groups were given performance tests on subjects completely unrelated to fashion accessories, brands, etc. By design, it was easy for the subjects to cheat on the tests in a manner that appeared to be undetectable. The results: the subjects who believed they had been wearing imitations showed a significantly higher propensity to cheat than did any of the others, or than did control groups from previous experiments.
Not only did these subjects - the "fakers" - become more likely to behave dishonestly, but also - on other tests - they showed that they were (again, significantly) more likely to view others as dishonest.
Ariely writes, "THE BOTTOM LINE is that we should not view a single act of dishonesty as just one petty act." "…we should also realize that the first act of dishonesty might be particularly important in shaping the way a person looks at himself and his actions from that point on… that is why it is important to cut down on the number of seemingly innocuous singular acts of dishonesty." "…immoral acts in one domain can influence our morality in other domains. That being the case, we should focus on early signs of dishonest behaviors and do our best to cut them down in their budding stages before they reach full bloom."
It is not too hard to apply these lessons to the real estate business. It is understandable, but regrettable, that agents - and companies - will frequently engage in puffery, not just about their properties but about themselves. In the never-ending quest to gain market share there is a constant temptation to fake it - to say or claim a bit more about ourselves than may actually be true. (How many of us can there be who are in the top 1 %?)
We exaggerate about our job performance, our education, past experience, etc. And there is a tendency to say, "What harm can there be in that? Everyone does it. No one gets hurt." Ariely would disagree. We should pay heed.