Why some individuals tend to lie more than others is a complex subject, but a new study has suggested that overall, how honest people are varies from country to country.
But that’s not to say that if you are from a particular country, you’re probably a liar: The study was interested in looking at honesty in relation to a country’s development, which has been proposed to play a role in economic growth. Still, it’s interesting that such a correlation was indeed found; however, honesty appears to be less important for such development now than it was half a century ago.
To draw these conclusions, University of East Anglia researcher Dr. David Hugh-Jones selected 15 countries to take part, representing a mix of regions, levels of development, and levels of social trust. More than 1,500 individuals took part in the experiment, for which honesty was measured using two simple tests, both of which were incentivized and reported using an online survey.
The first involved a simple coin flip: Participants were told if it landed on heads, that they would be given a small financial reward. It would be expected that, if everyone reported their result truthfully, then the scores for heads vs tails should be 50/50. But with the offer of money on the table, some might be inclined to lie should they land on tails.
For the other part of the experiment, participants were given a music quiz involving six open-ended questions, some of which were deliberately tricky and unlikely to be known by many. Once again they were offered money, this time if all questions were answered correctly, but participants were asked not to cheat and look up the answers.
After pooling the data, Hugh-Jones found that no country was immune to dishonesty, but that significant variations seemed to be present. For the coin flip test, the U.K. was found to be the most honest, with only a 3.4 percent estimated dishonesty, while China was the least honest with a score of 70 percent, followed by Japan, South Korea and India.
For the quiz, the U.K. came out second most honest, behind Japan, while Turkey was at the other end of the scale. It’s interesting that while Asian countries were the most dishonest in the coin flip, they were no worse than others in the quiz, which could possibly reflect cultural differences such as attitudes towards gambling.
Another interesting find was that although a relationship was seen between honesty and development, with richer countries tending to be more honest, this trend was more significant for economic growth that occurred before the '50s. If a country is less developed, Hugh-Jones reasons, they could substitute formal contracts for honesty, but as they grow and build their own institutions and technologies, the need for honesty lessens.
The experiment, unpublished but under review, does have its obvious limitations. While the scenario doesn’t necessarily reflect real-life situations, it is necessary to trade off honesty against something else, like money, otherwise they’d have no reason to lie. But what was interesting was that these measures did seem to correlate with real-life episodes of dishonesty.
“I also asked people about previous dishonest behaviors, such as calling in sick or downloading music illegally,” Hugh-Jones told IFLScience. “People who got heads in the coin flip were more likely to admit those previous dishonest behaviors.”
That said, the findings aren’t necessarily generalizable, Hugh-Jones admits to IFLScience, because the participants were members of online marketing panels, rather than a random sample.