Corrupt societies encourage lying

Posted on under Today's research

I have always been fascinated by the science of morality, and I’m thrilled that Alicia and I have been asked to present on the topic at the upcoming PwC Ethics Conference in Dubai. Many, many studies have been done on the subject of late—not a few reported in previous editions of TR. A really interesting one appears in the latest edition of the journal Nature.

What the researchers found, after stripping away all their caveats, is that individuals are more likely to lie if they live in a country with high levels of institutional corruption and fraud—suggesting that poorly run institutions hurt society in more ways than previously suspected.

Over the past couple of years we have discovered that immoral acts have both a genetic and neurochemical base. For example men, and women, with excess levels of testosterone are more likely to act immorally. Because of testosterone levels, men are more likely to be more selfish, and less thoughtful of others if they are under 45.  After that their levels of the chemical in the brain fall away. Even people who act ethically most of the time find that there is a limit to good behavior and resort to unethical activities after a while. This is due to the action of the neurochemical glutamate, a lack of which undermines ethical behavior. We know that there is a genetic base to cheating, though, oddly this is less clearly understood than the biological drivers of prosocial behavior.

We also know that antisocial behavior is also context-driven. For example people who feel poorer than those around them are more prone to excuse their own immoral behavior on the basis of their being more “deserving.” This is the case even if, in absolute terms, they are very rich. Kenneth Lay (the ex-CEO of Enron) was a great example of this. He compared himself to other CEOs who made more money and so considered himself justified in trying to “catch up.”

In a similar vein past research has shown that people are more likely to break the rules if those around them are also doing so. For instance, people surrounded by graffiti and litter are more likely to drop trash themselves. But what we really didn’t know is to what extent societal norms like political fraud, corruption, and tax evasion trickle down—and to what extent such societal norms corrupt individuals.

To find out, researchers pulled data on government corruption, tax evasion, and election fraud from the World Bank and Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that researches democracy and political freedom, for 159 countries. They combined these rates into an index that measured institutionalized rule-breaking.

Then, over the course of almost 5 years, they traveled to 23 of those countries to measure honesty at the individual level. They asked college-aged volunteers to roll a dice and report the number that came up. The higher the number, the more the researchers paid the participants—but participants knew the experimenters couldn’t see the results of their rolls. When the average number of the reported dice rolls from all the participants in one country turned out to be greater than expected by chance, the researchers knew that some people were lying to get more money. When they compared these rates with institutionalized rule-breaking, they found that people in countries with higher levels of rule-breaking were more likely to cheat on the task.

But when people lied, they rarely did so to the fullest extent possible. Rolling a five would win participants the maximum payout, because a six was worth nothing. But rather than just reporting that they had rolled a five, they were more likely to report only modestly inflated values like threes and fours. “Even faced with these temptations, people still care about feeling honest,” the researchers concluded. “That’s why people lie only to the extent that they can justify their lies.”

They refer to this phenomenon as “justified cheating”—a way to benefit while still feeling like a somewhat honest person. What people justify as honest seems to vary according to their environment, they said. “It seems that people benchmark their dishonesty with what they’re surrounded by in their daily life.”

The countries with the lowest rates of cheating tended to be well-off western European ones—Austria, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom scored particularly low. On the other hand, Morocco, Tanzania, and Kenya scored among the highest.

While the researchers  acknowledge that it’s tempting to conclude from the data that people in certain countries are intrinsically less honest, they instead see cross-cultural commonality. “Even in the most corrupt countries, people are not blatantly dishonest,” they say.  “People are concerned about this self-image of being an honest person.” Even Lay considered himself “honest.”

The findings of the present study could also apply to many organizations that have been in the news. A high level of corrupt behavior at the bottom (for example the widespread low-level graft recently exposed on NSW Rail or, some years ago, or among printing staff on New York newspapers) often reflects a high level of real or perceived corruption at the top.

Of course then there’s Sydney’s Barangaroo.


By Dr Bob Murray

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