Plausible Deniability

By Jim Tune

In the United Kingdom, members of Parliament have long been allowed to bill taxpayers for the expense of maintaining a second home because they are required to spend time in both London and their home districts. The office responsible for deciding what was reasonable approved nearly every request. Consequently British members of Parliament (MPs) treated it like a big blank check. And because their expenses were hidden from the public, MPs thought they had it made, until a newspaper printed a leaked copy of those expense claims in 2009.

Not surprisingly, the MPs had behaved abominably. Many of them declared their second home to be whichever one was due for major and lavish renovations (including dredging the moats). When the renovations were completed, they simply redesignated their primary home as their secondary home and renovated that one too, sometimes selling the newly renovated home for a huge profit.

Late night comedians are grateful for the never-ending stream of scandals like this one coming from political centers of power. But are the rest of us any better than our leaders?

Psychologists have done extensive research on the effects of “plausible deniability.” In one study, subjects performed a task and were given a slip of paper and a verbal confirmation of how much they were to be paid. But when they took the slip to another room to receive their pay, the cashier misread one digit and handed them too much money. Only 20 percent spoke up to correct the mistake.

July29_MT_JNThe story changed, however, when the cashier asked them if the payment was correct. In that case 60 percent said “no” and returned the extra money. Being asked directly removes plausible deniability. If a direct lie was required to keep the money, people were three times more likely to be honest.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely describes a series of studies in which participants had the opportunity to earn more money by claiming to have solved more math problems than they really did. Ariely summarized his findings like this: “When given the opportunity, many honest people will cheat. In fact, rather than finding that a few bad apples were weighting the averages, we discovered that the majority of people cheated, and they cheated just a little bit.”

Curiously, people didn’t try to get away with as much as they could. Rather, they cheated only up to the point where they themselves could no longer find a justification that would preserve their belief in their own honesty!

Ariely said conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president. Aided by our “press secretary,” we are able to lie and cheat frequently, and then cover it up so effectively that we convince even ourselves.

How ready we are to excuse the sin in our own lives, while condemning it in others. The heart is deceitful. George MacDonald famously said, “I understand God’s patience with the wicked, but I do wonder how He can be so patient with the pious.” I can justify most of my “little” sins, but every sin comes from the same tree. How would life change if all of us were harsh with ourselves in the matter of sin and compassionate to everyone else?

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