Cohn, Alain, Michel André Maréchal, David Tannenbaum, and Christian Lukas Zünd. 2019. “Civic Honesty around the Globe.” Science, June, eaau8712.
Civic honesty is essential to social capital and economic development, but is often in conflict with material self-interest. We examine the trade-off between honesty and self-interest using field experiments in 355 cities spanning 40 countries around the globe. We turned in over 17,000 lost wallets with varying amounts of money at public and private institutions, and measured whether recipients contacted the owner to return the wallets. In virtually all countries citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained more money. Both non-experts and professional economists were unable to predict this result. Additional data suggest our main findings can be explained by a combination of altruistic concerns and an aversion to viewing oneself as a thief, which increase with the material benefits of dishonesty.
Here is a graph of the results:
In contrast to many observers, I did not find the tendency to return wallets with more cash to be a surprising one. Wallets don’t cost a lot, and if there’s nothing valuable there (e.g. substantial cash or important ID), it’s perhaps not worth my time to try to get ahold of its owner. Moreover, on this account, I believe the rankings should have been displayed by the red dots (wallets with money), not the yellow ones (empty wallets).
As for the numbers themselves, there are few surprises here for people familiar with the stereotypes. The Scandinavians are still at the top (even if one wonders for how much longer). The Meds are at the bottom in Europe.
Czechia and Poland can now into Nordics, while Russia is at mainstream Euro levels. This doesn’t accord with stereotypes so much. However, I have long noted that Russia is becoming less of a sovok and more of a SWPL place over time. As the Iron Curtain retreats into history, we might expect the artificial resemblance that appeared between Southern and Eastern Europe that has been championed by Hajnalists to likewise fade away.
Socialism’s baleful legacy is also observed in China – the only high-IQ dishonest society in this sample.
At first, I speculated that this might be a product of laws that promote perverse incentives. For instance, there was an infamous case in which a man went to help an old woman who had been knocked down by a car, only to get sued by her for medical expenses. The judge ruled in her favor, making a circular argument that he wouldn’t have helped her if he wasn’t the one who had hit her in the first place. This is sometimes cited to explain why the bystander effect is so strong in China. By extension, perhaps there are similar fears about being accused of stealing money if one returns a wallet. By the same logic, why would you return it you hadn’t stolen it in the first place?
Hugh-Jones, D. 2015. “Honesty and Beliefs about Honesty in 15 Countries.” University of East Anglia Discussion Paper.
Then again, I recalled another a 2015 study in which online participants were presented with a coin toss and told to say whether it was a “heads” or “tails.” When they reported a “heads,” they got money; when they reported a “tails”, they got nothing. It was done completely anonymously, so there was no risk of being found out and shamed/punished for it. Consequently, the share of people reporting “heads” above 50% could be considered as a proxy for honesty. The countries in question included the following: Brazil, China, Greece, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, the United States, Argentina, Denmark, the United Kingdom, India, Portugal, South Africa, and South Korea. Estimated rates of national dishonesty ranged from 3.4% in Britain to 70% in China.
While they weren’t included in these studies, by most observations you don’t have this semi-psychopathic cynicism in other Chinese cultures that avoided Maoism, such as Taiwan (regardless of their other problems).
The Third World third worlds. Nothing to say there.