A Disingenuous Mistake in Dan Ariely’s Talk About Dishonesty

I ran across this post draft while clearing out old notes and, since I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about the instinctual underpinnings of “piracy” before, here you go…

A few days ago, I saw RSA Animate’s video for The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty  by Dan Ariely. On the whole, it’s an interesting talk, as pretty much anything chosen for RSA Animate is… but there was one problem which I found myself dwelling on.

While Dan Ariely makes an excellent point about the importance of incorporating forgiveness into society to improve social behaviour, his argument is greatly crippled because one of his examples elicits dismissive behaviour far in excess of any benefit he may gain from using it. Specifically, his example of illegal music downloading as extreme rationalization.

Why does this cause his credibility to take such a hit among certain viewers? Because he gives no indication that he understands the deep psychological underpinnings of the distinction between eating and running and downloading a file.

For the vast majority of human existence, music was free. It was a flowing, living cultural artifact similar to gossip or telling jokes. Then, we gained the ability to record it and each of those wax cylinders or plastic discs took effort to make, so we charged for them… but going back to the other model was inevitable.

As soon as computers made it possible for us to copy files en masse at vanishingly small costs, a different set of instincts took over. Files are like jokes and recipes, not balls and ice-cream cones. People need to be taught to share a scarce item like a ball, but they laugh at you and then become outraged when they realize you’re serious if you tell them they can’t re-tell a joke without paying.

As human beings, we are terrible at fighting our own instincts. That’s why so many of us have trouble saving money or stopping eating or getting up the confidence to talk to a stranger we’ll probably never meet again. We’re still wired as tribal apes and we’re terrible at fighting those very same instincts that tell us to share culture like mad. (Speaking of which, borrow Mean Genes by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan next time you stop by your local library.)

By dismissing this distinction, Mr. Ariely comes across as ignorant, which calls his position as an authority on other psychology-related matters into question… matters on which his argument depends.

CC BY-SA 4.0 A Disingenuous Mistake in Dan Ariely’s Talk About Dishonesty by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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