Research highlight

Psychology: Honesty is the best policy


March 10, 2016

Society exerts a strong influence on the honesty of individuals, suggests a study published in Nature this week. Individual honesty tends to be greater in societies with low degrees of corruption, tax evasion and political fraud, and vice versa, finds the study.

Simon Gachter and colleagues constructed a ‘prevalence of rule violations’ index (PRV) for 159 countries using available demographic and economic data from 2003 on political fraud, tax evasion and corruption. They conducted die-rolling, reward-based behavioural experiments with 2,568 young people (21.7 years old on average) from 23 countries - including Viet Nam, Morocco, China, the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden, Italy and the Czech Republic - encompassing a wide range of societal backgrounds as measured by the PRV. They find a robust link between the prevalence of rule violations and intrinsic honesty: individual honesty is stronger in participants of low national PRV values (low degree of rule breaking) than in those of high PRV values (high degree of rule breaking).

These results are consistent with norms of honesty and rule following being culturally transmitted across generations and with the idea that norms and institutions co-evolve. The authors conclude that weak institutions and cultural legacies may have adverse economic consequences on societies, and also impair the honesty of individuals, which is important for the smooth functioning of society.

doi: 10.1038/nature17160

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