NORWICH, England, Nov. 16 (UPI/Brooks Hays) — Honesty may be the best policy, but its not always top priority. According to new research out of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, the way people define and value honesty varies from country to country.
Scientists used a pair of online tests to measure the levels of honest behavior in 15 countries, from Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as North and South America. The results suggest some countries are more honest than others.
One of the tests asked participants to flip a coin and report whether it landed on heads or tails. Participants did so knowing they would be financially rewarded $3 or $5 if they reported the coin landing on heads. Nations revealed their propensity for dishonesty when the percentage of heads landings drifted farther and farther from 50 percent.
The second test had participants take a music quiz. They were specifically warned not to use outside information or look up the answers online, and each question had a box to check acknowledging adherence to this stipulation. Three of the questions were purposefully difficult — hard enough to make it extremely unlikely any one quiz taker would get more than one of the three correct. Participants revealed their dishonesty by getting two or more of the difficult questions correct.
Each test showed varying levels of truthfulness and dishonesty across all countries. United Kingdom residents were most honest in terms of accurately reporting their coin flip results. Only 3.4 percent misreported. Upwards of 70 percent of Chinese participants lied about their coin flipping results.
Japanese participants answered the music quiz questions most honestly, while quiz-takers in Turkey were the most likely to cheat.
Researchers combined their tests with surveys about perceptions of honesty and social trust, and also attempted to tease out the relations between these concepts and economic growth.
“Differences in honesty were found between countries, but this did not necessarily correspond to what people expected,” lead researcher David Hugh-Jones, an economist at UEA, said in a press release. “Beliefs about honesty seem to be driven by psychological features, such as self-projection.”
“Surprisingly, people were more pessimistic about the honesty of people in their own country than of people in other countries,” Hugh-Jones added. “One explanation for this could be that people are more exposed to news stories about dishonesty taking place in their own country than in others.”
Hugh-Jones and his colleagues say that the results don’t necessarily reveal who is more deceitful in a vacuum. Behavior is influenced by a variety of cultural factors. Asian countries tended to be more dishonest when taking the coin-flipping test, but were not significantly more dishonest overall. Researchers say such a discrepancy may reflect varying perspectives on gambling.
Economists have long studied the correlation between honesty and economic growth, with richer countries tending to be more honest than poorer ones. But the latest results suggest that correlation has weakened significantly over the last half-century.
“One explanation is that when institutions and technology are underdeveloped, honesty is important as a substitute for formal contract enforcement,” Hugh-Jones explained. “Countries that develop cultures putting a high value on honesty are able to reap economic gains.”
“Later, this economic growth itself improves institutions and technology, making contracts easier to monitor and enforce, so that a culture of honesty is no longer necessary for further growth.”
Hugh-Jones presented the study’s findings on Monday at the London Experimental Workshop conference, being held at Middlesex University in London.