Is honesty the best policy? In fact, in situations where people believe they will not be caught, it appears that honesty is considered a costly strategy. Many find that cheating pays, and judicious cheating seems sensible, particularly when it is enough to obtain advantage, without it being too obvious. Crafty.
Do the citizens of some countries cheat more than others? Yes, Gachter and Schulz (2016) found so, and their results are shown below.
Simon Gächter & Jonathan F. Schulz. Intrinsic honesty and the prevalence of rule
violations across societies. Nature, Letter doi:10.1038/nature17160
The authors argued thus:
Good institutions that limit cheating and rule violations, such as corruption, tax evasion and political fraud are crucial for prosperity and development. Yet, even very strong institutions cannot control all situations that may allow for cheating. Well-functioning societies also require the intrinsic honesty of citizens. Cultural characteristics, such as whether people see themselves as independent or part of a larger collective, that is, how individualist or collectivist a society is, might also influence the prevalence of rule violations due to differences in the perceived scope of moral responsibilities, which is larger in more individualist cultures.
If cheating is pervasive in society and goes often unpunished, then people might view dishonesty in certain everyday affairs as justifiable without jeopardising their self-concept of being honest. Experiencing frequent unfairness, an inevitable by-product of cheating, can also increase dishonesty. Economic systems, institutions and business cultures shape people’s ethical values, and can likewise impact individual honesty.
I described Gachter and Schultz’s work in April 2016, and thought I could immediately see a problem with the interpretation that the authors placed on the results. Putting forward a different perspective took a few days. Getting that new approach published has taken 2 years. For how long will researchers put up with these absurd delays which impede the prompt assessment of arguments?
The authors of this very interesting study, having revealed the cheats, interpreted the national differences as being due to cultural factors, particularly whether there were institutions in each society which encouraged honesty. Of course, this leaves open why one society would have such institutions and another would not. Culture must come from somewhere. A reasonable hypothesis is that the institutions of a county are built by the people who live there. Here is our reply:
Honesty, rule violation and cognitive ability: A reply to Gächter and Schulz
Heiner Rindermann, David Becker, James Thompson.
Intelligence, Volume 68, May–June 2018, Pages 66–69.
Our argument is that both institutions and honesty are determined by the intelligence of people, and that bright people can see the long-term benefits of honesty and of institutions that support honest behaviour. Any institution with a code of conduct leads its members toward probity, and shows prospective applicants what standards are expected of them. However, those institution do not arise randomnly.
Gächter & Schulz assumed that institutional rules affect individual honesty.
We added cognitive ability as further factor explaining national differences.
Stronger effect of IQ (total 0.55) than of rule violation (total −0.34) on honesty.
Stronger effect of IQ (total −0.68) than of honesty (total −0.26) on rule violation.
Gächter and Schulz (2016) assumed an effect of institutional rule violation on individual honesty within societies. In this reply we challenge this approach by including a nation’s cognitive ability as a further factor for cross-national variations in the prevalence of rule violations and intrinsic honesty. Theoretical considerations, correlational and path analyses show that a nation’s cognitive ability level (on average β = |.62|) better explains and predicts honesty and rule violation. While institutional and cultural factors are not unimportant, cognitive factors are more relevant.
The paper argues that there is a causal link between intellectual development and moral awareness: the individual process of development represents an advance from cognitive egocentrism to de-centered thinking, from ethical egocentrism to the consideration of the interests and rights of others.
Cognitive ability seems to have the strongest causal effect on the honesty of a society:
The same pattern holds true if you assume that social levels of honesty intermediate individual levels of honesty as shown by rule violation.
Either way, it seems that intelligence explains whether some societies cheat at games and cheat in real life.