While you are more likely to encounter an honest person in countries with established and enforced rules, a new study by researchers from Yale University and the University of Nottingham finds that even in countries rife with corruption, most people do not lie as much as they could to maximize financial gain.
The researchers conducted a simple experiment to measure intrinsic honesty among groups of about 100 students each in 23 countries, ranked according to the prevalence of corruption, fraud, and tax evasion in that nation.
They asked each student to roll a die and report the number, with a promise that they would receive a progressively higher amount of money for every roll from one to five. However, if they rolled a six they would get nothing. While no individual results were checked, researchers used probability science to estimate the number of liars in each group.
They did find more people were likely to fudge the die roll results in countries with high levels of corruption. Overall, however, the results illustrated what researchers called “limited dishonesty”: Rather than reporting the number resulting in the highest payment, participants tended to over-report slightly.
“Psychological theories of honesty predict limited dishonesty because of a desire to maintain a positive self-image as an honest person,” said Jonathan Schulz, postdoctoral researcher in Department of Psychology and co-author of the study. “Gradual cheating allows people to balance self-image concerns and financial gains.” The findings were reported online March 9 in the journal Nature.