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A promising study that opens up new avenues for further research. This is the opinion of UvA researcher Shaul Shalvi about the publication of a new experimental study by a research team from the University of Nottingham and Yale that shows a robust link between a country’s prevalence of rule violations and the intrinsic honesty of its residents. The research paper was published on 9 March in Nature. Shalvi’s comments are published in a News & Views article in the same Nature issue.

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Rule violation and honesty

In their experimental study, Simon Gächter and Jonathan Schulz show that a country’s prevalence of rule violations, which for this study included tax evasion, corruption and political fraud, is positively associated with the tendency of resi­dents of that country to lie for a small amount of extra cash. Their finding rejects the idea that intrinsic honesty levels are similar in countries around the globe and suggests that corruption corrupts.

The team’s experiment involved 2,568 participants in 23 countries who were asked to roll a standard six-sided dice to determine their earnings. Higher reported numbers translated to higher earnings, with the exception of reporting a six, which meant getting nothing. Because rolls were done in private, participants could easily lie about the outcome to increase their earnings. During the experiment, the team observed that participants of countries with a high prevalence of rule violations lied more than those in countries with a low prevalence of rule violations. Participants were neither fully honest nor fully dishonest. Participants, especially those in countries with high prevalence of rule violations, were stretching the truth – that is reported the highest number of the two rolls they observed, not the number appearing on the first roll as the rules dictate.

Stretching the truth

According to Shalvi, a researcher at the UvA’s Center for Research in Experimental Economics and Political Decision Making (CREED), the results suggest that high exposure to rule violations turns people into ‘truth stretchers’, but not brazen liars. ‘The authors’ work highlights many avenues for future work to explore’, Shalvi notes. ‘For example, we know very little about the time it takes for changing society level norms – such as a decrease in country level corruption – to influence individuals’ honesty. Furthermore, since people interact with people from outside their country when doing business, travelling, studying abroad and migrating, the influence of such exposure may further influence their rule adhering behaviour.’

Corruption roots project at UvA

Shalvi is currently working on the ERC funded project ‘At the roots of corruption: a behavioral ethics approach’. As part of this project, Shalvi conducts basic behavioral research on corruption. The project also seeks to establish a platform at the UvA that will bring together European policy makers, practitioners, and scientists to exchange ideas on why corruption emerges and how it can be tackled.

Publication details

Gächter, S. & Schulz, J. F. ‘Intrinsic Honesty and the Prevalence of Rule Violations across Societies’, in Nature (9 March 2016)
News & Views: Shalvi, S. ‘Corruption Corrupts’ in Nature (9 March 2016). Doi:10.1038