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Viewing Your Nation's Flag Inhibits Tax Evasion

A familiar image that reminds us of our identity as a citizen can inspire us to pay our taxes.

Income taxes are about to come due, which means many Americans are frantically searching for ways to avoid paying their fair share. Given that such cheating only increases the burden on the rest of us, a simple way to spur people to pay up would be widely welcomed.

New research points to just such a plan. It reports citizens of both the United States and Great Britain were less likely to engage in tax evasion if they had been exposed to their national flag.

The results, along with those of a similar study of Australians, suggest the image of the flag activates a specific aspect of our personal identity—that of a citizen of our nation. This in turn motivates us to help our fellow citizens by paying our taxes.

"Presenting the national flag on tax forms might be an effective means of helping reduce tax evasion," writes Eugene Chan of Australia's Monash University. His study is published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Past research has found exposure to the flag can indeed affect attitudes, but not necessarily in desirable ways. One recent study reported seeing the stars and stripes heightens political polarization, while another found it reduced people's desire to buy particular products.

To discover if it can hinder cheating on taxes, Chan conducted three experiments, featuring citizens of the U.S., United Kingdom, and Australia, respectively. The first featured 98 Americans who were recruited online.

First, they were shown "either an American or a Canadian flag in full color," and asked to give their opinions on its design. They then performed a second, unrelated task, and were informed they did well enough to earn a $30 bonus on top of their $1.50 base pay for participating.

They were informed that the bonus would be taxed $6, meaning they'd only receive an extra $24. However, participants had to manually input that $6 figure into the computer, meaning they "could under-report the amount of tax and receive a higher bonus instead."

The results: Fifty-eight percent of those who viewed the Canadian flag cheated, compared to only 25 percent of those who saw the American flag.

In the second study, 312 Australian undergraduates who viewed their own country's flag (as opposed to that of neighboring New Zealand) expressed stronger attitudes about the importance of paying taxes.

The final study, featuring 244 British citizens, was structured similarly to the first: Half the participants evaluated the design of the U.K. flag, while the other half skipped that step. Only 10 percent of those who saw the Union Jack cheated on their taxes, compared to 57 percent of those who did not.

"Our results suggest a unique implication of making one's national identity salient on taxpaying behavior," Chan concludes. The sense of citizenship prompted by the sight of the national flag reminds us of our obligations to our fellow citizens—including contributing to the common welfare.

Oh, say, can you see yourself cheating on your taxes? If you've been looking at the flag, not so much.