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Why Be Honest If Honesty Doesn’t Pay (1990) (hbr.org)
51 points by midef 25 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments



When I was in my twenties, I realized it was easier to get laid by being an asshole, so I did just that.

After a while, it hit me: this strategy made me deeply unhappy.

With time I observed a lot my mental process, mood and behavior, and I noticed that things like being rude, cheating, being selfish, etc. while paying off on the short run, were affecting my long time happiness.

Apparently I was not made for that.

Lying, is one of those things. I can lie. I'm actually a very good lier, and a decent actor.

But I keep it in check, doing it mostly because humans tolerate badly total honesty, or sometime because I'm weak. Otherwise I avoid it, not for moral reason, be because somehow, I find it strongly unsatisfying. It's not even a judgemental voice in my head stating that it's wrong. It just feels like writting with the left hand with a boxing glove: I can do it with training but it's just not the experience I wish for.

I met many people sharing the same experience, but I can't say everybody feels like this.

However, it seems a damn good reason to be honest, even when it doesn't pay.


I am in my twenties. I feel the same, just not sure about the negative effects on longterm happiness.

I'm sure there's a balance there to be attained. But knowing you are capable of lying, being a jerk, cheating and what that gives you, is very powerful.

In general I think there's a lot to learn from bad people. Which is an idea lot of people dismiss.


That's a pretty stupid way of living. But hey, don't mind me, I'm old.. There is no balance to be attained in being a jerk/cheater or whatever. It's like saying: I have the option of breathing or not breathing, so let's get a good balance. No!

If you want to learn from bad people: Do it, but use it for good. For example in identifying people who are bad, or want to take advantage of you/others. But certainly not to get a balance.

And btw, I always hope, people with questionable opinions get screwed by someone with the same questionable view. Let's hope you'll learn your lesson.


Actually I tried the other way around: never being a jerk, never lie or cheat. But I couldn't manage: people take advantage of you and you get frustrated.

Now, building strengh, characters, and participating to alternatives to the status quo are better long term strategies.

But on the short term, always playing by the rules is a serious disadvantages in some environments.


It's ok to build strength and character, but that doesn't mean you have to be jerk or a liar at the same time. IMO if you have to lie or be a jerk, it's the opposite of a strong character.

Your argument started with "it's easier to get laid, if I'm a jerk". And now your argument is "it pays to be a jerk in harsh environments". First of all, I hope women aren't included in your harsh environment. Second, you're right. Absolute commitments without exceptions is rarely good advice. There are always exceptions. My criticism is about finding a balance of being a jerk. There is no balance to be attained. There might be exceptions, but not something to balance for.

I'm aware that I feel very strongly about it. That's why I couldn't hold myself back from writing a comment. For me this is very important, because I get the feeling, that humanity is drifting towards dishonesty. It's even expected to be lied at. For example, my co-workers lie to our customers if we missed something or implemented a bug in our software. It's not an option anymore to say to them straight, that we made an error! How stupid is that? The customers wants to be lied at! On the other hand, if they did something they're not supposed to do with our software, they lie about what they really did. This gets me so angry... Sorry, I'm going to stop now.. :)


How are did people take advantage of you that could only be prevented by being a jerk/liar/cheater ?


Usually people in harsh environnements.

If you have to play monopoly, and somebody cheats, you have 4 choices:

- loose. It's not a game you can win by skill

- stop playing. It may very well be a terrible option for you.

- call for authority. Unfortunatly this is one of the least effective strategy IRL.

- level the playing field. Not great, but the least of evils until you get yourself into a better situation such as playing another game, have friends to help you, etc.


Same here, there's a lot to the idea of ying and yang.


Principle of charity. He agreed with this statement: "I was not made for that [lying]." He's saying knowing your dark side is a powerful help. Jung said the same - usually using slightly different words "shadow", "Id", or "shadow aspect/archetype." He hasn't endorsed lying as a lifestyle, and I would mention that those who have encountered and acknowledged their shadow are far less likely to project it on others as you just did - something Jung discusses at length.


If you try to educate others, you probably have to ask first whether you're the one being wrong.

First, your quote is not from a post I answered.

Second, it's interesting to have a link to Jung's material. But stating "something is true, since Jung discusses it at length" is just a very bad argument. Why? Because duedl0r said so.

Third, actually, I share your opinion about the quote and all....but the way you wrote your post is not ok for me


I mentioned that Jung mentioned it I'm not a fanboy of his, as it happens. But nobody's wrong all the time.

Please educate me about what wasn't okay about my reply - it's all blandly factual. "Principle of Charity" is a thing, not a phrase of mine.


It's really hard to discuss nuance here. But for someone who is proud of his moral superiority, you sure didn't try to see where I was coming from.

I'd say it's a layered thing. You start with the right core, but you layer some of these bad characteristics on top. Depending on your environment, you will have to deal with different kinds of people.

Your example is exactly what I mean by balance. But there are more. But itt difficult to showcase my point when your response just leaks out moral superiority, as if you know the backstory to these opinions.

Looking at the relationship between Trump and the media vs any "good guy" and the media. He can, would and did say everything he wanted, and no one batted an eye, it moved no one. Fundamentally a lot of people already thought he was bad, or that he says shit.

But take your "good guy" Joe. That if his image was built on pure goodness, one slip, one mistake and the press would be all over him.

What I'm trying to see is that the arsenal of weapons ( physical, mental) at a bad person's disposal is larger than a purely good person's.

And that is maintained with scale. I'm looking at the weapons bad politicians have and use, vs those that the purely good ones have at their disposal. Especially when the former have power.

There's more to this. But it's hard to have a discussion with someone, who can't see that some of the things bad people do, have a place in this world, and can be employed for a better purpose.


Did my share of selfish things in my twenties and with the hindsight of another decade: true power is found looking inward. It’s the power you gain over yourself by finding calm and focus. Not the power you hold over others, which is transient and ultimately illusory.


Yes, it makes you more powerful, but is power what you want to value most in life? If not, what does your value heirarchy look like, and how does lying/being a jerk affect your ability to achieve your highest values?


I can't think of a single lie that is actually worth it. To people who believe in some amount of lying: what lie is actually worth it? Is it truly worth it telling your spouse their outfit looks good when you think it looks awful? Is it truly worth it telling people you're having a great day when you're not? Is it worth it to lie about a product to make more sales, or lie about your own skills to get a job?

IMO, all lies are not worth it. Feel free to shoot counter examples at me!


I'm curious if the value of dishonesty has increased as police forces and their efficiencies have increased. In times past if somebody felt sufficiently screwed, there was a chance for quite severe consequences. People were armed, detective work was primitive, and local legal systems had a defacto defense of 'he deserved it.'

But today you can screw millions of people over and feel pretty safe about it. People are generally not armed, police work is of a much higher quality and a perceived quality even higher than that (CSI effect [1]), and criminal courts don't tend to consider justifiability except in an extremely narrow set of situations such as self defense.

It means that, in practice, the worst consequence you can ever expect to face for a bad action is the legal consequence for such. And even if everybody 'knows' you did it, so long as you can pose any sort of a defense to offer reasonable doubt you stand a pretty decent chance of getting off. And highly paid lawyers, alongside a convoluted and ever more esoteric legal system, tend to be pretty good at doing just that.

I'm not making a value judgement on systems of past or present. I simply find unintended consequences remarkably interesting. A reasonable argument that better police forces and improved legal systems could somehow drive dishonest and unlawful behavior would rank pretty high up there on something nobody would ever intend.

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSI_effect


If you're not honest, sooner or later people who are close to you will know that. Why should they treat you better than you treat other people?

Be honest so you can live with yourself. So that you have nothing to feel guilty about. So that you can reasonably expect and demand other people to treat you as well as you treat others.


Dishonesty only pays off in the short term. It basically requires you to constantly be on the move and into new social circles to avoid your reputation. Wherever you are, whether you're honest ot dishonest, your reputation eventually catches up with you. Which one do you want catching up with you?

Where I see people saying, "honesty doesn't pay off," what they are usually talking about is being a doormat. You can be an honest, nice person without letting people exploit you. In fact, it is more honest, to tell people "no, I can't do that" than to constantly bend over backwards to get people's approval.


I think a distinction to be made here is the difference between being "nice" and being "kind". The former is someone who would bend over backwards and not enforce or consider their own boundaries. The latter is someone who has the same intention but is mindful of what their own personal values are and having self-respect.

It's tough because they both have the same intention, but the execution of it is different. I feel somewhat shameful of not learning the distinction until very recently, but am still grateful for learning it at all.


Honesty in psychology is equated with sanity, and correlates linearly with stability, and longevity of the person.


The short version: The real reason, perhaps unpopular to state it, is that we will be happier, now and in the next life, with a clear conscience.

The longer version: there is a God, this life is not our beginning nor our end, we will be rewarded or punished according to our choices, someday everything about us will be known, but God can help us change now, to have peace, and happiness that lasts, families that are happy, tools to address the problems of life, and a reason for confidence to go on when things are really hard, etc, etc. That sounds like a sermon but I have thought about it for a very long time and considered my reasons for belief, which I have tried to explain:

http://lukecall.net (a lightweight site, just text; it attempts to be a skimmable outline of info where you click what you find interesting, for more info.)

EDIT: And no matter one's worldview: after many years of observing, reading and learning from experiences, it seems so very clear that we all get farther if we work together and can help & trust each other.


> there is a God, this life is not our beginning nor our end,

Downvoted because this is an extraordinary claim without falsifiable evidence. And my experience following that path was not a harmonious one. Perhaps it is better for us to cooperate more, but I'm not convinced that wildly varied interpretations of imaginary authorities are the best way.


With regards to testing, I think I have very thoroughly tested, at least enough for my own knowledge. For example, when I do what I know I should be doing, based on my belief in God or based on the limited things I have felt are right, in spite of my weakness, things go better and I am always glad. No exceptions that I know of, and I have been tracking this. On the other hand, when I have gone against that, due to wanting to do things my own stubborn way instead, of course I may, and sometimes do so for a long time, but there are always regrets. Tracked much of that also, and the results are clear to me. I don't know if that counts as falsifiable for you (probably not, because the specific experience was mine, not yours), but I can say with confidence, having heard much of experiences of others also, that you can learn the same if you wish. But no one can give it to without your at least minimal initial desire and some effort, and willingness to follow what you learn for yourself to be true, step by step. That is how it works. You will know when you know, and then you will know more when you apply it patiently and see that it works.

One person pointed out there are more ways to determine truth than science alone (essential and valuable as it is):

Again, there is more info at my previously-linked web site.

I'm not sure whether that can be a helpful answer for you, but has certainly been convincing to me, both the easy way and the hard way.


Its an extraordinary claim, but its religion, it kinda starts with extraordinary unfalsifiable claims from the start.

Truth is, it doesn't matter. Ideas of an after-life and such may or may not be true, but the instructions for how to live here on Earth are the same regardless of the belief: Try your best to be a good person and when the time comes, leave this world having made it better, not worse.

Any religious story comes down to teaching that lesson ultimately, perhaps ideas of reincarnation or after-life are to provide a story to believe as extra motivation when people come to believe things like "Why be honest if honesty doesn't pay". If you've come to believe that, if you also believe dishonesty will result in very real very bad things for you eventually, you may act honestly anyways.

Just because religion isn't falsifiable in a strict scientific sense doesn't mean there is no value to discussing it. There is still a logic to it that can be understood and interesting consequential conclusions drawn from.


Thanks for your comment, which I respect and appreciate.

At the same time, and in addition, I believe that there are reasons for which it matters, because by knowing the truth there are much greater benefits available. Through the teachings I try to follow, one can have greater peace and joy in this life, a perspective and accompanying tools to better solve the inevitable problems of this life, and also that through those teachings and the accompanying ordinances, one can have blessings after this life which can come in no other way, such as family ties that persist beyond the grave, and Eternal life with God. There are different options for those who want only to be a good person: good, but not as good. There is more in the earlier link to my web site ( http://lukecall.net ).

This is in no way a declaration of superiority. Some of the lessons I have learned were unfortunately learned the hard way, rather than the easy (obedient, humble) way sometimes, but I am, by all those good & bad experiences, fully convinced that the specific teachings are true. (I'll add another comment in this immediate thread about that part -- relative to falsifiability.)


In the link I documented at length why the evidence is sufficient for me, after long consideration, experience, and testing. And it gives me great comfort and direction etc. (And I mention somewhere down in there how it relates to science, which I greatly respect.)


This is such a depressing read on so many levels, but chiefly for me because I have a brain defect which compels me to be brutally honest at all times, think of it a Tourettes light. And when at times, it's seemed like bending the truth would equate to a 2500 km shortcut, I've comforted myself that pure honesty always wins in the end. Sad to see it doesnt.


My take on it is that it just boils down to what your highest insights are about what is important in life. If you believe that the maximum we can hope for is just to be sophisticated animals, acting in a sophisticated jungle, aiming for more sophisticated forms of animal goals (gain the most power, impregnate the most females etc.) then through that particular filter, indeed honesty doesn't necessarily pay off and dishonesty can be just another good tool in the toolbox to achieve king of the pack status.

There are however those who aren't content with just being sophisticated animals. They want to to dive into the depths that no animal can reach, and that requires self-honesty, and uncompromising honesty at that. And there is no way you can truly be honest with yourself while being dishonest with others, for reasons which become evident once you walk this path. This path (if traveled to its full extent) pays way more dividends than any benefit gained from prizes given by the sophisticated jungle. So, whether honesty pays or not, really depends on what sort of existence you seek.


“Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky


That was surprisingly insightful, thanks!


I have a family member who claims something similar. What i've come to understand though is that what he calls honesty is actually much better described as cruelty. It's not "truth" in the sense of objective fact, it's more his own personal opinion, which in fairness he does share truthfully with those who didn't request it. Somehow his personal truth just doesn't account mitigating factors or compassion for the frailty and failings in others. This results in him being very harsh in his truthful appraisals of others. Interestingly, he manages to find such compassion and nuance in rare moments of self-reflection.


Nailed it. Assholes frame their cruelty as honesty.


Important note: Im not that family member.


Really depends on how you define winning. I suspect an honest guy achieving a modest success will feel much happier than someone who managed to become a bilionaire thanks to his terrible personality.


What if a lie would save a person?


Can you provide an example?


i have this too! interesting to see im not alone. its gotten me into lots of trouble but i still think of it as a strength (for one thing friends trust me, even though they cant trust me with secrets hah)


It pays to be seen as honest, not actually honest.


IMO this is equally short-sighted as not being honest at all.


Bingo. This is the final optimization.


It's much easier to be actually honest. When you lie you have to keep track of your lies, otherwise you might slip up and get caught. It can become a huge mental burden if you're lying all the time and juggling many different stories with different people.

When you're honest, on the other hand, it's easy most of the time because you just tell people what you know to be true.


I mean I suppose if you're maintaining like wildly different identities. In general though it's not any different than remembering which stories and anecdotes you've already told people, besides which most people just don't really care to delve into inconsistencies in each other chalking it up to fallible memory on one or the other parties.


> you have to keep track of your lies, otherwise you might slip up and get caught

I wish that were the case, but it isn't. There are many other strategies for avoiding the negative consequences of lying that scale better. Society is really, really bad at holding liars accountable. Just look at President Trump -- or a couple of rungs up your corporate hierarchy.


a lier has the same arguments, he also believes noone will catch him in his lies...


Why? Peace of mind and stronger relationships.


It could just as easily lead to trouble and weaker relationships...


One issue is that dishonest people will use the honesty of some against them


That happens. I believe in God and that we will be rewarded or punished per our actions. That long-considered belief gives me confidence and peace to go forward even when it is really hard (like the example you give). I have tried to explain and elaborate, here:

http://lukecall.net/e-9223372036854618458.html

EDIT: Having said that, I also believe trust is earned and important questions deserve corroboration and ongoing verification whenever that makes sense.


no, it surely pays you, it pays you comfortable, and feel good and divine.


I've found that people fall along a spectrum of conscience that determines how bad you feel when you lie (independent of the consequences).

Where you fall on this spectrum is determined by a combination of genetics, family values, and societal values.

There are people who don't feel bad about lying in any situation e.g. sociopaths and pscyopaths. There are people who only feel bad lying in certain situations (the situations that society doesn't give a pass to). Then, there are people who feel bad lying in all situations (typically, bc of the values they inherited from their parents and upbringing).

I say all this because I think the optimal behavior when it comes to lying frequency is entirely dependent on where you fall on this spectrum. If you are a psycopath, you can be happy with a code of conduct that allows frequent lying and covering up your lies. If you feel terrible about lying in all situations, then you shouldn't lie at all.

Unless you do really hard work on changing your value structure, you're sort of tied to a solution, and if you want to be happy, it behooves you to follow it.




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