The prevalence of corruption and fraud in a country in a society affects the level of honesty and uprightness of its citizens. A study by behavioural economists Simon Gächter and Jonathan Schulz explored how the prevalence of rule violations across a society affects the intrinsic honesty of its individual members, thus creating dishonest citizens.
Deception is part of human nature. There are instances when individuals resort to a varying degree of dishonesty to better serve their individual interest. Of course, there are mechanisms and institutions placed to control deceptive behaviours that could result in serious harms. In schools, suspension or expulsion are the consequences of cheating and plagiarism. Laws in a given society criminalise severe forms of dishonesty such as petty crimes and fraudulent activities.
While deception is inherent, every individual is also capable of intrinsic honesty. There are individuals who have an established moral compass that keeps them from resorting to deception. But the prevalence of corruption and fraud in a society corrupts intrinsic honesty according to Gächter and Schulz.
Corrupt societies create an environment wherein dishonesty becomes a norm. People also justify their level of dishonesty based on the extent of dishonesty they perceive in their societal environment.
Determining intrinsic honesty: The dice roll experiment
The researchers carried an experiment that first involved creating an index of the prevalence of rule violations or PRV index by collecting data and information on corruption, tax evasion, and fraud recorded in 2003 from 159 countries.
After data and information collection, the researchers performed a behavioural experiments between 2011 and 2015 that involved 2,500 participants with an average age of 22 from 23 countries with PRV scores. It is worth mentioning that these participants were still children in 2003. They were too young to have affected the kind of dishonesty measured by the PRV index.
In the experiments, the researchers tested these participants to see how they honest would be in a situation in which they could lie without being found. The participants partake in a game in which each of them rolled a dice twice while seated in an isolated booth. They were then asked to report the first number that came out during their first roll. These participants knew that reports were unverifiable.
Take note the participants were told that they would receive a cash incentive depending on the number that appeared from the first dice roll. For example, “five” would be incentivised with 5 money units and “two” would be incentivised with 2 money units.
It was impossible to ascertain whether each participant reported the true result of his or her first dice roll. However, the rule of probability and statistics would tell the average claim of the entire participants should be 2.5. This was not the case.
Gächter and Schulz also reiterated that it was impossible to tell apart different levels of dishonesty. If ever participants lied, everyone would have reported the highest number that appeared in the first dice roll. Rather than reporting the number they had not roll at all, the researchers believed that most participants reported the highest number that appeared between the first and the second dice roll. Gächter and Schulz called this behaviour a “justified dishonesty” in which the participants resorted to bending the rules in order to feel better.
The results were not a form of blatant cheating or an outright dishonesty. There was a certain degree of truth to the claims. However, these results were anything but honest. The researchers noted that these dishonest individuals were not brazen liars but truth-stretchers.
Results: Corrupt countries create dishonest citizens
Interpreting the results required the researchers to determine the different levels of justified dishonesty based on the country of origin of participants. Doing so involved grouping the participants and determining the average of money unit claims. In addition, this required referencing the level of prevalence of rule violations of the involved countries.
Further results revealed that in countries with low PRV level, participants claimed 3.17 money units on average. On the other hand, in countries with high PRV level, participants claimed 3.5 money units on average—this placed them a bit beyond the justified dishonesty level according to the researchers. This also means that there was a correlation between the PRV level of a country and the amount of money claimed by its citizens.
Examples of countries with low PRV level with participants that claimed lower money units on average were Austria, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Examples of countries with high PRV level with participants that claimed higher money units on average were Morocco and Tanzania.
Remember that the participants were too young to have contributed to PRV index obtained from data and information in 2003. This means that the results of the study suggested that these participants have been exposed to the norms that affected how they behaved in situations that required either honesty or dishonesty.
The same results also suggested that institutions and cultural values influence the prevalence of rule violations, which, through different theoretically predicted and experimentally tested pathways, influence the intrinsic honesty of people and rule following. In addition, people benchmark their justifiable dishonesty with the extent of dishonesty they see in their societal environment.
In a nutshell, the results of the study suggested that higher exposure to rule breaking instances including corruption, tax evasion, and fraud makes people more likely to stretch the truth. The researchers concluded: “The results are consistent with theories of the cultural coevolution of institutions and values, and show that weak institutions and cultural legacies that generate rule violations not only have direct adverse economic consequences, but might also impair individual intrinsic honesty that is crucial for the smooth functioning of society.”
Further details of the study of Gächter and Schulz are in the article “Intrinsic Honest and the Prevalence of Rule Violations across Societies” published in March 2016 in the journal Nature.