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A World Tour of Dishonesty

A new survey finds a connection between honesty and economic growth—and how wrong our expectations about other countries' trustworthiness are.
(Photo: STILLFX/Shutterstock)

(Photo: STILLFX/Shutterstock)

Some say hide what you have to hide; others believe in always telling the truth. For most of us, a little white lie here and there is no big deal. More interesting than that trivial observation, however, is whether there might be cultural differences in lying: According to a new study, while there are cultural disparities, our expectations about which countries are most prone to prevarication are way off.

Studying dishonesty was not researcher David Hugh-Jones's principal interest. Instead, he wanted to test an old idea about British economic success: 19th-century Chinese scholar Feng Guifen's assertion that the United Kingdom's success was due in part to its honesty—not a totally absurd idea, given that some level of trustworthiness is necessary to get people to sign big business contracts.

Great Britain was the most honest, and China the least honest.

First, however, Hugh-Jones needed to know whether people from some countries actually were more honest. To find out, he recruited 1,539 people, about 100 each from 15 countries including the United States, Brazil, and China, to partake in two simple tasks for cash rewards. In one, participants flipped a coin and reported whether it came up heads—if so, they'd receive a reward of a few dollars, but if not, players got nothing. A coin coming up tails thus posed a moral dilemma: Report heads and take the money, or be honest and get nothing. The more participants in one country reported heads, Hugh-Jones reasoned, the more dishonest that country appeared to be.

Hugh-Jones next gave each person a tough music quiz—with questions regarding Lady Gaga's real first name (Stefani) and Claude Debussy's birth year (1862)—without letting participants turn to the Internet for help (though the researchers weren't able to monitor their online use). Players received a reward for answering all six questions correctly, creating a financial incentive to be dishonest and look up the answers.

"There was significant evidence of dishonesty in every country," Hugh-Jones writes in a paper presented today at the London Experimental Workshop. But there was also great variation between countries. A few countries were almost completely honest on the coin-flip task, while others reported heads at the implausibly high rate of four out of every five flips, with similar results for the music quiz. Overall, Great Britain was the most honest, and China the least honest.

Interestingly, there was some correlation between honesty and a country's gross domestic product—in particular, its GDP before 1950. That, Hugh-Jones writes, suggests that, in a developing economy, placing a high value on honesty can reap economic gains. Later on, however, contract-enforcing institutions take the place of trustworthiness, explaining the relatively weak correlation between honesty and current GDPs.

But from a sociological perspective, the most interesting result may be this: We are terrible at predicting others' honesty. When Hugh-Jones asked participants to estimate how other countries would score on the coin-flip test, he found that participants' guesses "do not relate to reality." Why? Projection—the most dishonest individuals were the most likely to think others would be dishonest as well. Maybe something to think about next time you sign a big business contract.


Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.