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Are auto makers' lies any different from everyone else's?

Automakers have been caught telling a lot of lies lately.

Why the falsehoods? Why now?

Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, is an expert on lies. His research is featured in the 2015 documentary “(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies.”

Here's his take :

Everyone lies -- they just do it for different reasons

"There are many reasons. Some of them are good. There are what you call white lies, which are really lies for other people. You can think of white lies as caring about other people. There are non-white lies, selfish lies, which we do for ourselves. There are lies we tell ourselves but we don’t even know that we’re lying. It’s called self deception.

"We find that a lot of lying is about rationalization, about telling ourselves a story about why what we’re doing is actually OK when in fact it is not. There are times when we think that everybody else is doing it, therefore we find it OK to lie, so there’s really lots of different types of lying, and because of that, it is not easy to figure out how to stop people from being dishonest because the motivation for lying is so diverse and complex."

Lies start small and then escalate

"A lot of the things we find in the discussion with big cheeses is that when you look at the end of what they did, you say to yourself, I could have never done that, but the fact is they couldn’t have looked at themselves and thought about it as well. They started with a small step. And we find over and over that when you examine these dishonesties, when we look at what they did first, you have a very different understanding of what they did.

"Volkswagen, I don’t think it started in the board room. These are not planned things where people think about the cost of their actions carefully and decide yes this is a good idea to pollute the world in this way. A lot of these things start with small steps that people take and then it gets worse and worse and worse."

Lies are not perpetrated with consequences in mind

"First of all, people are not good in general in thinking about the long term. This is why we over eat and under save and so on. And when it comes to dishonesty, it’s the same thing. It’s not as if people say let me understand the cost and benefit and what’s the risk and is it worth it. No. Instead what people do is at the moment, it’s something they’re pushed toward because of conflicts of interest."

Lies are often the result of conflicts of interest

"A big part of this is conflicts of interest and our ability to see the world in a way we want to see it. If I work for company A, I really want to see company A succeed. Think about the people who started the LIBOR scandal. We have recordings of these people — emails, phone conversations.  The bank was making a lot of money, but they themselves did not make much out of this. They were low-level employees.

"Let’s assume the same thing with Volkswagen. The engineers who wrote the code for this, maybe instead of making 80,000 Euros, they made 80,050. If you worked at VW and you wanted to be a crook, the easiest way would probably be to walk around the office and steal other people’s wallets."

A lot of cheating is altruistic

"If you work for Fiat, you want Fiat to be successful. You tell your friends that you work for Fiat, and you want Fiat to do well, and you care about your friends in the company. What we find about altruistic cheating is it’s very, very powerful. Altruistic cheating is when we cheat for other people. So you work in a team, and what’s important is the success of the team. And you don’t get to gain from this, but your friends do."

Lying is a reflection of social norms

"The thing about psychology is we internalize the values of society. That’s the process of socialization and what gets us to behave one way or another. It’s not the punishment. It’s what do we feel bad about. We don’t even know the rules, but society tells us don’t feel bad about doing illegal stuff. Society tells us to feel terrible if we go to a restaurant and eat something and escape without paying. So we feel bad and we don’t behave this way