On February 5th, Brian Williams admitted on his own news program that he had misrepresented the facts around a dramatic story he reported from Iraq in 2003. He had placed himself at the center of an RPG missile attack on a helicopter which he had not been on. The story sent NBC’s news division into a tailspin. On February 3rd, we finished a documentary film on dishonesty, three years in the making, and his scandal had us reeling. In one section of our film, Williams appears as a voice of authority, explaining the downfall of an administrator at a prominent university who had lied on her resume.
The scene suddenly took on a perverse and ironic twist.
Here we had America’s most foremost anchor, talking about a woman who had misrepresented her credentials, and he had just done something similar—and the entire US media became obsessed with the story. We didn’t know what to do: re-open the film, take the scene out, or try to interview Williams and have him be part of the film. In the end, we decided to leave the film exactly as it is and let the irony be there for those who notice it. For NBC News and for Brian Williams, the scandal has had deep repercussions in terms of public and professional trust.
This was of course not the only lie of 2015, and from a six-month distance it seems to be just one small wave in a stormy sea. Some other examples include football’s “Deflategate,” the Ashley Madison Hacking Scandal, and the current political campaign where lying has become a new form of political “reality entertainment.”
In September, one of the most shocking corporate scandals in recent history erupted with Volkswagen. The company was found to have used software—known as a “defeat device”—on its diesel cars which made them seem environmentally friendly when in fact they emitted far more pollutants than allowed: 40 times more than what is permitted in the US. This impacts over 11 million cars worldwide. Volkswagen’s CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned and the company’s reputation is tarnished and its future lies in question.
The common place of dishonesty in our society is a good reason to take advantage of the New Year in order to examine where we stand ethically as a society. When these scandals erupt, it is tempting to look for the individuals at fault. And while there can certainly be bad individuals in the mix, our work suggests that the reality of these situations is far more complex.
For the past few years, we have been collaborating on a project about dishonesty that examines the topic through the combined lens of science and storytelling, and we believe there’s a lot to learn by examining these types of scandals that take us by surprise. In the course of our research—in the lab and through interviews—we have found that transgressions generally begin as relatively small actions: such as exaggerating a fact, fudging a few numbers, and doing things that everyone else is doing. But dishonesty builds and is suddenly a very slippery slope. From the outside, it is hard to fathom. From the inside, it can become routine and it can happen to people who are just like us. Unfettered by ethical standards and by clear rules and regulations, organizations and the individuals in them can easily go astray.
Which brings us to FIFA—the governing body of soccer, the most beloved sport in the world.
Since May, FIFA has been imploding as thirty current and former officials and associates have been indicted or charged regarding criminal behavior. Allegations include widespread bribery, money laundering, and racketeering. The investigations go all the way to FIFA president Sepp Blatter and a wide cadre of top officials. Corruption is so widespread that it is unclear how the organization will find a legitimate successor. FIFA’s problems have been common knowledge for years and corruption went unchecked leading to an organization that has become rotten to the core.
So what can we do about it? How can we protect ourselves?
The beginning of a new year offers us a great opportunity to begin to improve and change our behavior. It gives us a reason to reflect and distance ourselves from our past selves, think about how we want to be in both the near and distant future, and take steps to get closer to that ideal. We can turn a page and start fresh. Our ability to use breakpoints as a fresh start is an incredibly useful human trait and we should not waste the opportunity. We should take advantage when life offers us moments in which to turn over a new page. Religions offer different opportunities—confession in Catholicism, Yom Kippur in Judaism, and Ramadan in Islam, to name just a few. But New Year’s is a non-religious holiday that offers everyone the same opportunity as members of civic society. This is a time we can all “reset” and do it at the same time, regardless of religious background. We can reboot our moral compasses together and move forward.
That would be a good start.
Dan Ariely and Yael Melamede are the creators behind The (Dis)Honesty Project and the new documentary (Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies, now available on DVD and on digital VOD. For more information visit thedishonestyproject.com.