Generalized Dishonesty or Specified Dishonesty?

Are specific people generally dishonest or are people in general specifically dishonest?

As I see it, generally dishonest people intend to cheat, to behave in untrustworthy ways.  They are held to be generally unethical in their values and self-interested, often in very materialistic ways.  Specifically dishonest people, on the other hand, behave in untrustworthy ways, in very specific circumstances.  An Ecosynomic lens might suggest that when they are embedded or indoctrinated into a culture steeped in both (1) focus on their own self wellbeing, at (2) purely the outcomes level of reality, they collapse into only paying attention to their own materialistic wellbeing.  This distinction suggests that what we might do with generally dishonest people is quite different than with specifically dishonest people.  General dishonesty has deep, complex roots within the human being.  Specific dishonesty might be more a matter of the specific culture.  Might be.  If so, what to do in the two cases is quite different.

Research presented in the December 4, 2014 issue of Nature (click here) finds that, “employees of a large, international bank behave, on average, honestly in a control condition. However, when their professional identity as bank employees is rendered salient, a significant proportion of them become dishonest.”

I would love to hear what you think.  Are people more generally dishonest or specifically dishonest?  What are the implications for what to do about their dishonesty?  Please share what you think here.

2 thoughts on “Generalized Dishonesty or Specified Dishonesty?

  1. I have seen people do things we would consider questionable to avoid penalty or gain approval when working in a broken system. An example earlier in my career – I was working at a center that processed payments for the government. The system was structured such that the payment clerks looked bad when payments were late. Solution for some employees – delete the invoices and shred them so there was no evidence of a late payment.

    I have no idea how often this happened but often enough that it created serious problems for the organization. If we are in a position of designing systems it is important to attend to create a culture that allows people to raise issues rather than take action to avoid punishment that creates bigger problems.

    I don’t think these people were bad or evil – they were basically good people trying to maintain their jobs and get their annual pay raises in a rather imperfect system. I do believe there are also people who are dishonest and yet my many years of consulting experience has revealed mostly good people trying to navigate through life the best they can. I have seen very few people who I would consider innately dishonest and many who will make a poor choice when pushed.


  2. It’s extremely dificult to be honest all the time. As the dilemma proposed one answer might be that, under control, most people keep being honest, too much control and people would tend to beat the System, no controls and the world becomes wild. I would prefer lots of control without showing it. The controller freak boss would tend to lose all the control as beings adapt to pressure and controls. In places, some companies in the USA and in the entire country where employees still punch the entry and exit times to work people would find ways to beat it. On the other side, in most engineering companies where much freedom is allowed most people tend to put more hours than the law dictates.


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