Can we determine how honesty varies across countries?

by on November 17, 2015 at 1:01 am in Data Source, Economics, Games, History, Law, Philosophy, Political Science | Permalink

The paper is by David Hugh-Jones, and this is from the research summary:

The study examined whether people from different countries were more or less honest and how this related to a country’s economic development. More than 1500 participants from 15 countries took part in an online survey involving two incentivised experiments, designed to measure honest behaviour.

Firstly, they were asked to flip a coin and state whether it landed on ‘heads’ or ‘tails’. They knew if they reported that it landed on heads, they would be rewarded with $3 or $5. If the proportion reporting heads was more than 50 per cent in a given country, this indicated that people were being dishonest…

The countries studied – Brazil, China, Greece, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, the United States, Argentina, Denmark, the United Kingdom, India, Portugal, South Africa, and South Korea – were chosen to provide a mix of regions, levels of development and levels of social trust.

The study’s author Dr David Hugh-Jones, of UEA’s School of Economics, found evidence for dishonesty in all the countries, but that levels varied significantly across them. For example, estimated dishonesty in the coin flip ranged from 3.4 per cent in the UK to 70 per cent in China. In the quiz, respondents in Japan were the most honest, followed by the UK, while those in Turkey were the least truthful. Participants were also asked to predict the average honesty of those from other countries by guessing how many respondents out of 100 from a particular country would report heads in the coin flip test. However, participants’ beliefs about other countries’ honesty did not reflect reality.

This is interesting:

“Differences in honesty were found between countries, but this did not necessarily correspond to what people expected,” he said. “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.

And consider this from Hugh Jones:

“I suggest that the relationship between honesty and economic growth has been weaker over the past 60 years and there is little evidence for a link between current growth and honesty,” said Dr Hugh-Jones. “One explanation is that when institutions and technology are underdeveloped, honesty is important as a substitute for formal contract enforcement. 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.”

The research paper is here, and for the pointers I thank Charles Klingman and Samir Varma.

Jones, by the way, makes it clear there are a variety of kinds of honesty, and inferences from any single test should be limited.  For Japan in particular the measured level of honesty depends critically on which test is applied.  The real lesson of the study may simply be that most groups are dishonest, and people are not even honest with themselves about their views of the dishonesty of others.  Honesty depends a good deal on context too.  On some of these questions, see some skeptical comments from Kevin Drum.

If you are looking for simple correlations: “…at individual level, there is no evidence that religious adherence is associated with honesty.”  How about having a Ph.d.?

1 Chip November 17, 2015 at 1:19 am

$3-5 means different things in different countries. For the Japanese it may be too low a price for dishonesty whereas in China it’s a good deal.

2 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 8:18 am

Bingo. And were the subjects the sort that bored psychology grad students pull in off the street?

3 msgkings November 17, 2015 at 12:11 pm

It was an online survey, stated in the first line of the summary.

4 Christian List November 17, 2015 at 12:39 pm

That’s exactly what I thought. 3-5$ is nothing in the UK while in countries like China it could be quite some money. This can not be the real design. Otherwise it would be a huge flaw that makes the whole study worthless.

5 Andao November 17, 2015 at 3:15 pm

They discuss that on page 13-14. Reported income didn’t correlate with honesty, and neither did the change from $3 to $5 as a reward.

6 david November 17, 2015 at 1:23 am

the test design of a coinflip is ingenious, but the implementation, hmmm

Participants were members of managed online panels. These are typically used by firms for market research. Members are recruited from across the web, and sign up to receive regular invitations to surveys and questionnaires. Recruitment materials usually emphasize both material benefits of taking part (“share your opinion to win gifts, cash and test products”) and non-material benefits (“have your say”). .. .Thus, these panels are not probability samples of the country populations: quota sampling is used to provide balance across gender and age, but respondents are likely to have been unrepresentative in other dimensions. For example, all Swiss respondents answered in French, although German was available as a questionnaire language. This method falls short of the ideal of representative sampling, but it is likely to compare well with the method, widely used in cross-cultural experiments, of recruiting participants from laboratory subject pools in different countries. Quota sampling guarantees a reasonable spread of age groups, and other demographics are likely to be more similar to the country population than student samples.

7 vic November 19, 2015 at 4:40 am

In Switzerland, commenting on the Study, a Swiss German Newspaper ironically pointed out that the relatively disappointing Swiss result (SW ranked 5th most honnest country) should be related to the fact that only French Speaking Swiss did participate !

8 Steve Sailer November 17, 2015 at 1:24 am

Lots of Americans find Japanese automakers fairly trustworthy. Nobody in America even bothers importing Chinese brand cars.

9 wolf November 17, 2015 at 2:02 am

what is the HBD explanation for differences between China and Japan .

10 Steve Sailer November 17, 2015 at 2:16 am


11 Brandon Berg November 17, 2015 at 4:43 am

Well played.

HBD isn’t the belief that all aggregate differences in group traits are due to genetics, but rather the rejection of the dogma that none are.

12 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 8:20 am

I take it you don’t read the comboxes on Mr. Sailer’s blog. Vulgar sailerism is genetic determinism.

13 Gochujang November 17, 2015 at 10:39 am

HBD’s problem is that the whole thing requires us to “presume a racist.”

Humans have huge diversity and variation, which we can embrace without reference to 18th century prejudice.

It is only if you presume a racist that you take all that diversity and bucket sort it along the old racial lines. You might find phantom patterns, but you would get patterns if you were an ageist, or a heightist, or an incomist, or a weightist, or a lattitudist, or a faithist. You are just data mining a pet peeve. Not terribly bright, but terribly sad. It doesn’t register that you could get similar results on many random criteria. Miles to ocean vs IQ? Probably.

14 Adam November 17, 2015 at 10:50 am

Why anyone would spend his days reading the “comboxes” on websites whose authors and audience he despises is beyond me. I guess some people just have a great deal of time on their hands.

15 Kris November 17, 2015 at 11:52 am

The problem with HBDers is that they don’t understand the difference between a step function and a normal distribution.

16 John L. November 17, 2015 at 5:01 am

Blocked qi? Has someone verified if the furniture pieces are where feng shui says they should be?

17 Jason Bayz November 17, 2015 at 2:28 am

Might have something to do with adoption of agriculture and large scale society in general: Japanese have had it for a shorter period of time than the Chinese, just as the Northern Europeans have had it for a shorter period of time than the Southern Europeans. Thus Japanese are less corrupt and make better soldiers but aren’t any smarter.

But it might not be HBD at all.

18 Thiago Ribeiro November 17, 2015 at 2:46 am

Atomic bombs mutated Japanese DNA? Has someone made a study comparing the Japanese diaspora (in the USA, Brazil, Peru, etc.) with their counterparts in Japan? After the War ended, many Japanese immigrants (mostly rural workers) in Brazil thought Japan had won the war–and consequently Brazil, the coolest Ally, had been defeated. They had to be confined and/or tortured to be disabused of this dangerous (for their Brazilian “masters” and their saner “defeatist” immigrant fellows, some of which ended up murdered by their extremist countrymen) illusion. According to some comtemporary sources, they were also under the impression they had human rights the government was bound to respect (another illusion they had to be cured from ASAP). Meanwhile the Japanese in Japan seemed to have accepted defeat with commendable grace and stoicism, some bumps in the road notwithstanding (ūjō_incident ) their defeat (“Nevertheless, the time has come to bear the unbearable”, etc.). Is it possible the atomic nombs dropped by the USA on Japan be the reason for this in behavior, that is, is it possible the Japanese in Japan suffered mutations that made them more reasonable? Should the USA nuke Detroit? Would the Neutron Bomb be a better choice?

19 Thiago Ribeiro November 17, 2015 at 2:48 am

* the atomic bombs dropped by the USA on Japan be the reason for this difference in behavior, that is, is it possible the Japanese in Japan suffered mutations that made them more reasonable?

20 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 8:32 am

This may come as a surprise to you, but not everyone in Japan lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

21 Ray Lopez November 17, 2015 at 8:57 am

@TR- you been chewing on the coca leaf while imbibing mata de coca, amigo?

22 Thiago Ribeiro November 17, 2015 at 10:32 am

Well, we know genetype is destiny because the best experts comment boxes can afford tell us so.We also know that Japan surrendered at the end of WW II (bear the unbearable,etc.). We also know–well, I know– that the Japanese in Brazil thought they had won the war, while their Brazilians betters were adamant their team (go, Allies, go) had won, and from this wacky misunderstandment came the murder of some “defeatist” Japanese (genetically degenerates, I guess) who thought maybe Japan could perhaps have lost war after all) , the interning of lots of Japanese citizens in Brazil, the widespread use of torture to reeducated the prisoners and make peaceful people out of the terrorists and suspects and a drive to inscribe a ban of Japnese immingrarion in Brazil’s constitution– it ended in a draw in the special Congress commission, and the project was shelved, but again there was as much representatives thinking it was a good idea as representatives saying banning an entire people was kinda overreacting, you guys. To be fair, no one tried to make Japan pay for a wall. Now I am trying to conciliate the idea that genes are everything with the fact the Japanese in Japan were smart enough to understand they had lost a war while their counterparts in Brazil were busy printing a new currency for their new tropical colony, a currency which was so heavily traded by the immigrants it appreciated relative Brazil’s true currency. They even distributed an altered photo of the USS Missouri ceremony and said MacArhur was the one who surrendered. And it was their word against the Brazilian government’s word. You can see the problem here, can’t you?

23 Thiago Ribeiro November 17, 2015 at 10:32 am


24 Thiago Ribeiro November 17, 2015 at 10:45 am

“This may come as a surprise to you, but not everyone in Japan lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Good for them, and I said they were all mutated, not desintegrated.

25 j r November 17, 2015 at 2:46 am

The answer to the question “what is the HBD explanation…?” is almost always backwards rationalization with a veneer of phony empiricism or, said more simply, a just-so story.

26 So Much For Subtlety November 17, 2015 at 4:15 am

The Chinese have been invaded by half the world and absorbed large numbers of ethnic groups in their expansion to the West and especially to the South.

The Japanese have not been invaded by anyone before 1945. With some possible exceptions involving the Imperial Family and some Koreans.

The Japanese are genetically closely related to each other. The Chinese are not.

27 John L. November 17, 2015 at 4:46 am

Seconds ago, the Chinese, except some despicable minorities unworthy of the glory of Han, were homogeneously intelligent, conscientious and law-abiding as opposed to those damn blacks and hispanics (one wonders why American statesmen of yore wanted to keep the Chinese out almost as if they were Mexicans–they even made the Chinese pay for the Great Wall of China, I think). Now, they are dishonest mongrels with no redeeming qualities. Sic transit gloria mundi.

28 dearieme November 17, 2015 at 9:59 am

The Irish proneness to perjury was notorious; you didn’t keep them out in that era.

I assume that Chinese exclusion was designed to protect the workers from competition – just like the White Australia Act, and, come to that, Apartheid. In other words, they were all examples of the Trade Union mindset.

29 Glenn C. November 17, 2015 at 12:16 pm

“The Irish proneness to perjury was notorious…”
Only when they were talking.

30 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 8:21 am

The Chinese have been invaded by half the world

What are you talking about?

31 The Original D November 17, 2015 at 5:34 pm

Why do you think they built a wall?

32 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 5:53 pm

They were not in danger from half the world. They were in danger from Mongol cavalry.

33 Axa November 17, 2015 at 2:42 am

What about the phone/computer where you typed the distrust of China? Shoes, clothing?

34 jeffn November 17, 2015 at 1:27 am

From my quick reading of the paper, it uses the same $3 and $5 within each country. Shouldn’t the reward be standardized by PPP or something? $5 won’t buy you much of anything in Denmark, but it can feed your family in China. I don’t see this as measuring “honesty”.

35 Dan Lavatan November 17, 2015 at 1:28 am

Were they required to flip it at random, it is easy to get a coin to flip one way or another consistently since the obverse and reverse are not identical in feel or weight.

36 Thiago Ribeiro November 17, 2015 at 2:20 am

Brazil proved to be a moderately incorruptible country!

37 Ray Lopez November 17, 2015 at 8:59 am

The internet is too slow here…taking too long to download paper… Did Greece finish #1, ahead of Turkey, as I hope they did? Greece wins again!

38 Ray Lopez November 17, 2015 at 9:06 am

Rats! I finally read the paper, and Turkey finished #1 (for dishonesty), way ahead of Greece which was in the middle of the pack. IMO that’s what’s wrong with Greece today, they bought into the whole “European” ideology, and forgot their middle east roots. They have become un-Balkanized without any offsetting benefit for becoming more European. As evidence of this, my informal survey finds most Greeks favor staying in the European Union. Sigh…that’s what aging demographics will do to you I guess…you lose your drive.

39 TuringTest November 17, 2015 at 2:21 am

I would expect people with PhDs, especially in moral philosophy, to display higher levels of deception than average, since such persons could use their studies to better justify their acts of deception

40 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 8:23 am

Yep. And their double standards. Watch the academic Bourbons manufacture excuses to strip John McAdams of tenure.

41 Axa November 17, 2015 at 6:12 am

The article author assess the impact of country GDP and 3-5 USD reward on honesty, apparently the effect is small/null. However, what the author does not discuss is the well-documented effect of “feeling observed”. When people feel observed they behave more honestly. It was only one experiment environment where people was aware of doing a survey.

This is more anecdotal than science but the environment matters: “In a nationwide experiment, CPP “dropped” 20 wallets containing £10 in cash, a photograph, tickets, receipts, stamps and several business cards in shopping centres, on public transport, in museums, cafes, and on the street in five cities: London, Leeds, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow……….According to the study, you can kiss your belongings goodbye if you lose your wallet in a cafe or on a train as none of the wallets “dropped” on public transport or while dining out were returned. But you have a 47% chance of seeing your wallet again if you lose it in a museum, and a third of the wallets “lost” in shopping centres were returned.”

Data is out there, natural experiments. Casually, GB has a functional justice system in place. All around the world there’s dishonest people, the difference is if they end up behind bars or become political and religious leaders.

42 Axa November 17, 2015 at 6:13 am
43 rayward November 17, 2015 at 6:41 am

I draft contracts for complex commercial transactions. There are two basic approaches: the contract that expresses, in general terms, the mutual intent of the parties and the contract that leaves nothing to doubt. I was taught early in my career by someone who followed the latter approach: he would break down the transaction in its details and then address every possible scenario, outcome, or area of potential disagreement and dictate the outcome (favorable to his client) in the contract. I call that approach the litigation avoidance approach to contract drafting. A less charitable characterization is that it acknowledges that parties to a contract are basically dishonest (and can’t be trusted to “remember” their mutual intent). Later in my career I was negotiating the terms of a contract with another lawyer and he complained about the length and complexity of my draft. I told him that the complexity was intended as litigation avoidance. His response: why would we (two lawyers) wish to do that?

44 prior_approval November 17, 2015 at 6:52 am

Wait a second – Prof. Cowen actually posted a link explaining how you if you pay people to lie, they are motivated to lie?

Best satire site on the web – particularly when the person posting this is the general director and chairman of a donor funded public policy institute with a clear agenda (see the post about reducing regulation to get a less than subtle hint).

45 Henslow November 17, 2015 at 7:14 am
46 ricardo November 17, 2015 at 10:14 am

He’s a hooochie-Kooochie man!

47 JWatts November 17, 2015 at 10:35 am

“Best satire site on the web”

A German car maker publishing a link to it would have been an even higher order of satire, of course.

48 msgkings November 17, 2015 at 12:18 pm

BOOM goes the dynamite.

49 chuck martel November 17, 2015 at 8:05 am

How would the results of this study have any particular application? Or meaning at all? If the Japanese are in reality more honest should we move to Japan, do more business with Japan, try and emulate the Japanese or what? The study itself is simple BS, with zero relationship to real world situations, like this one: Dishonesty and corruption are endemic, at least in western society. It isn’t necessary to flip coins over the internet to prove it.

50 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 8:29 am

Dishonesty and corruption are endemic, at least in western society.

The writer Elaine Morgan offered many years ago (surveying some popular writings by anthropologists) that when you find yourself making statements like that, plug in the name of someone you know and see if it still makes sense. It seldom does. The only routinely corrupt and dishonest people I’ve ever dealt with are higher ed apparatchicks, lawyers, and attractive teenage girls. With the lawyers, it’s business, not personal. Most of them seem to have an office mind and a rest-of-your-life mind and no corpus collosum connecting the two.

51 dearieme November 17, 2015 at 10:04 am

My dear sir, you surely are not suggesting that the expression “crooked lawyer” contains a redundancy, are you? In what subject did your current President distinguish himself at university?

52 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 12:23 pm

Actually, Obama only practiced law for about three years if you pro-rate periods of part-time and seasonal labor. He was a law school instructor for five. He was demonstrably undistinguished in both endeavours. His wife and his vp had legal careers of similar duration. John Kerry practiced for six years and change, all in the penal courts. The Hot Springs Lounge LIzard may have been of counsel somewhere but never truly practiced; his teaching career lasted about three years. The real crooked lawyers would be John Edwards on the one hand and Hildebeast and Webb Hubbell on the other.

I doubt Obama ever pays much attention to the distinction between truth or falsehood, but his most salient feature is conceit and vapidity. However, the extent of his involvement in the IRS scandal has yet to be determined.

53 The Original D November 17, 2015 at 5:40 pm

A friend of mine was a student of Obama’s at U of C and really liked him. That same friend went on to be one of Alan Greenspan’s assistants.

I love how you say he was “undistinguished” — except for the part about getting elected to the state legislature, the Senate and the presidency. Anyone coulda done that. The dude obviously has no skills. Much more impressive to become a partner in Baker McKenzie.

54 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 5:52 pm

He was undistinguished. He achieved no professional milestones as a working lawyer and never published a single scholarly paper in his 12 years as a lecturer at the University of Chicago. As for his 12 years in the legislature, tell us in what realm of public policy he was known as a maven? As for getting elected to the U.S. Senate, it helps when your people have moles in the offices of the clerk of the courts and not one but two of your opponents’ divorce papers are leaded to the media and the codpiece media is willing to publish their contents to help you and not publish the name of who in the bureaucracy committed this gross breach of fiduciary duty.

55 John L. November 17, 2015 at 10:39 am

“The only routinely corrupt and dishonest people I’ve ever dealt with are higher ed apparatchicks, lawyers, and attractive teenage girls.”
I knew it, I knew teachers (and the like), lawyers and pretty teenagers were, to borrow Reagan’s turn of phrase, the “focus of evil in the modern world”, specially the latter. When I was a teenager, I knew they were evil, shallow soulless people who could not see how awesome I was. Now I am vindicated.

56 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 12:25 pm

No, the pretty little liars I dealt with were all office temps about 15 years my junior.

57 John L. November 17, 2015 at 12:53 pm

I see, the problem is, they can’t see how awesome “I” am now.

58 John L. November 17, 2015 at 12:54 pm

Or was X years ago.

59 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 5:34 pm

No, the problem was they lied routinely about their absences.

60 Glenn C. November 17, 2015 at 11:36 am

“The writer Elaine Morgan offered many years ago (surveying some popular writings by anthropologists) that when you find yourself making statements like that, plug in the name of someone you know and see if it still makes sense.”
And now she is dead.

61 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 12:26 pm

She lived past 90. You think she’d still be alive if she’d swallowed the humbug the anthropologists were peddling in their magazine articles?

62 John L. November 17, 2015 at 1:39 pm

Now we never know…

63 Friend31 November 17, 2015 at 12:14 pm

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64 Silas Barta November 17, 2015 at 12:43 pm

I hope they made sure to rule out whether Chinese geography biases coinflips …

65 Val Dela November 17, 2015 at 1:40 pm

This a poor study, methodologically. Did you uncritically post and comment on it because it confirms your priors? You don’t seem to be aware that most studies on honesty have indeed found differences when it comes to not only religiousity, but which religion.
Poor post.

66 Todd Kreider November 17, 2015 at 2:04 pm

I lived in Japan 15 years and speak and read Japanese. Not to knock him, but guys like Noah Smith who have lived in Japan for only 3 years are intermediate beginners, linguistically. They can communicate but for them, the news may as well be in Chinese. They will be fluent if they live in Japan and study hard another 5-7 years or so.

From my experience, as the Ray Lopez of Japan minus the wealth and stream of babes, Japanese are much more honest than Americans. What the Japanese sadly lack is the lawyer mentality of insisting that a triangle is really a circle. The vast majority of Japanese simply don’t comprehend bullshit or why you’d take pride in being a bullshit artist – at least anywhere near the West.

67 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 5:33 pm

It’s less the lawyer mentality than the academic’s mentality. See the Crooked Timber poseurs.

68 Todd Kreider November 17, 2015 at 2:08 pm

Oh, I should have added that the above can throw you. Japanese can easily be dishonest, but it seems to be usually about little things like, you know, sex and relationships that they can’t imagine other japanese would inquire about in the first place.

69 Art Deco November 17, 2015 at 5:47 pm

That’s less mendacity than artifice. No deception is achieved and sometimes none is intended.

70 The Original D November 17, 2015 at 3:19 pm

From this we must conclude that the Chinese lie about their test and IQ scores.

71 The Original D November 17, 2015 at 5:45 pm

My Chinese ex-wife wasn’t a liar to me — then again how would I know? — but she was always seeking an angle to get out of paying taxes, bullshit legal fees and even tips to waiters. Her reasoning was “everyone does it.” I tried to explain that among my friends and family at least, we didn’t do that kind of thing. Among her mostly Chinese friends it was common. I think part of it is attributable to growing up in an incredibly populous, corrupt state, where oftentimes the only way to get ahead is to cheat. Especially when you consider bribery. She basically bribed her boss in Beijing to give her a promotion.

72 M November 17, 2015 at 7:17 pm

In the coin flip test, the four least honest countries were China, Japan, South Korea and India. However, Asian countries were not significantly more dishonest than others in the quiz, where Japan had the lowest level of dishonesty. Dr Hugh-Jones said the difference between Asian and other countries in the coin flip may be explained by cultural views specific to this type of test, such as attitudes to gambling, rather than differences in honesty as such.

So Japan = OK to cheat at gambling, but be honest about how much you know?

I wonder if that generalizes to industries that are perceived as “like gambling” vs “like knowledge”?

(Or possibly the Japanese just didn’t give a sh*t about seeming to know anything about Western music culture?).

And perhaps the stereotype that about a sense of “fair play” actually means something.

73 Anoop November 18, 2015 at 12:08 am

I’ll wait to see the full test methodology, but my first impression of the the coin test is that it is flawed. 50% probability for heads/tails is true theoretically and over a large enough sample size, and its entirely possible that for a sample size of 50-100, one or the other may dominate.

I expect the research will have taken this into account, but I’m curious to see how.

74 David Hugh-Jones November 18, 2015 at 1:58 pm

I am the author, ask me anything.

In particular:

* What about PPP differences?

I felt that correcting for PPP differences was a hopeless task. (What if real money amounts are what counts?) So instead, I varied the incentive randomly between $3 and $5 to see if it made a difference. It didn’t. (NB, there are quite a few papers suggesting that “lying aversion” is not affected by incentive size.). That suggests that incentive size isn’t driving the results.

* Some countries could have randomly got more heads.

Yes, but the large differences observed are statistically significant.

* This confirms what I thought about the Japanese/the Chinese/the Jews.

Give me a break!


75 the Secret Brain System November 21, 2015 at 12:48 am

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