Most people would probably agree that there are some occasions when telling a white lie is OK – such as when parents tell their kids that their pet dog has "gone to the farm." However, where we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable falsehoods is a complex issue, involving a host of arguments tied to the age-old nature vs nurture debate. According to the results of a recent experiment, a person’s intrinsic honesty may be strongly influenced by the moral environment in which they grow up, causing people from corrupt countries to lie more readily.
To conduct the study, researchers examined statistics relating to levels of tax evasion, fraudulent politics and other indicators of corruption, in order to create what they call a “prevalence of rule violations (PRV) index” for a range of countries in the year 2003. They then conducted their experiment using college-age students, who would have been developing their moral conscience around the time when these PRVs were relevant.
Participants recruited from 23 countries were asked to role a six-sided die, and received a monetary reward depending on the number they rolled, with five representing the highest payment and six corresponding to a reward of zero. Since no one but the participant was able to see the die, results were entirely dependent on how honest each player was.
As such, it was not possible for researchers to assess the honesty of each individual, although by looking at the results reported by players from each country, they were able to judge national honesty levels. For instance, since each number has a one-in-six chance of coming up, a statistically abnormal prevalence of high-reward numbers being reported by players of a given nationality would suggest that many of these results had been fabricated.
Publishing their findings in the journal Nature, the researchers indicate that improbable frequencies of high-reward numbers were much more common in countries with high PRVs compared to those with low PRVs. Additionally, players from countries with high PRVs were considerably less likely to report a six – and therefore receive no reward – than players from low PRV nations.
Based on these findings, the study authors conclude that intrinsic honesty may be stronger in people who grow up in countries where corruption is uncommon. Interestingly, however, they found no correlation between PRV and the likelihood of reporting a five, the highest-reward number. Accordingly, they suggest that, while people from corrupt countries may be more likely to cheat, they consciously limit the magnitude of their lies, reporting threes and fours rather than fives.
By way of explanation, the researchers suggest that even dishonest players may find lying “psychologically costly,” implying that it damages their self-image. In an attempt to salvage some personal pride, cheaters only inflate their results to an extent that they feel they can justify. However, it is also possible that players kept their lying in check in order not to arouse suspicion, only reporting scores that they felt they could get away with.