Letter | Published:

Intrinsic honesty and the prevalence of rule violations across societies

Nature volume 531, pages 496499 (24 March 2016) | Download Citation


Deception is common in nature and humans are no exception1. Modern societies have created institutions to control cheating, but many situations remain where only intrinsic honesty keeps people from cheating and violating rules. Psychological2, sociological3 and economic theories4 suggest causal pathways to explain how the prevalence of rule violations in people’s social environment, such as corruption, tax evasion or political fraud, can compromise individual intrinsic honesty. Here we present cross-societal experiments from 23 countries around the world that demonstrate a robust link between the prevalence of rule violations and intrinsic honesty. We developed an index of the ‘prevalence of rule violations’ (PRV) based on country-level data from the year 2003 of corruption, tax evasion and fraudulent politics. We measured intrinsic honesty in an anonymous die-rolling experiment5. We conducted the experiments with 2,568 young participants (students) who, due to their young age in 2003, could not have influenced PRV in 2003. We find individual intrinsic honesty is stronger in the subject pools of low PRV countries than those of high PRV countries. The details of lying patterns support psychological theories of honesty6,7. The results are consistent with theories of the cultural co-evolution of institutions and values8, and show that weak institutions and cultural legacies9,10,11 that generate rule violations not only have direct adverse economic consequences, but might also impair individual intrinsic honesty that is crucial for the smooth functioning of society.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    Deceit and Self-deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others (Penguin, 2014)

  2. 2.

    , & Contagion and differentiation in unethical behavior: the effect of one bad apple on the barrel. Psychol. Sci. 20, 393–398 (2009)

  3. 3.

    , & The spreading of disorder. Science 322, 1681–1685 (2008)

  4. 4.

    & On the cultural transmission of corruption. J. Econ. Theory 107, 311–335 (2002)

  5. 5.

    & Lies in disguise—an experimental study on cheating. J. Eur. Econ. Assoc. 11, 525–547 (2013)

  6. 6.

    , & The dishonesty of honest people: a theory of self-concept maintenance. J. Mark. Res. 45, 633–644 (2008)

  7. 7.

    , , & Justified ethicality: observing desired counterfactuals modifies ethical perceptions and behavior. Organ. Behav. Hum. Decis. Process. 115, 181–190 (2011)

  8. 8.

    Is liberal society a parasite on tradition? Philos. Public Aff. 39, 46–81 (2011)

  9. 9.

    Cultural beliefs and the organization of society: a historical reflection on collectivist and individualist societies. J. Polit. Econ. 102, 912–950 (1994)

  10. 10.

    & Greasing the palm: can collectivism promote bribery? Psychol. Sci. 22, 843–848 (2011)

  11. 11.

    et al. Impartial institutions, pathogen stress and the expanding social network. Hum. Nat. 25, 567–579 (2014)

  12. 12.

    & Pillars of Prosperity: the Political Economics of Development Clusters (Princeton Univ. Press, 2011)

  13. 13.

    Routledge Handbook of Political Corruption (Routledge, 2014)

  14. 14.

    Institutions and culture. J. Eur. Econ. Assoc. 6, 255–294 (2008)

  15. 15.

    & The evolution of conformist transmission and the emergence of between-group differences. Evol. Hum. Behav. 19, 215–241 (1998)

  16. 16.

    , & Fairness and cheating. Eur. Econ. Rev. 56, 1645–1655 (2012)

  17. 17.

    & in Moral Markets: the Critical Role of Values in the Economy (ed. ) (Princeton Univ. Press, 2008)

  18. 18.

    , & Business students’ attitudes toward unethical behavior: a multi-country comparison. Mark. Lett. 20, 1–14 (2009)

  19. 19.

    , & Business culture and dishonesty in the banking industry. Nature 516, 86–89 (2014)

  20. 20.

    & The collaborative roots of corruption. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 10651–10656 (2015)

  21. 21.

    & The evolution of prestige: freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evol. Hum. Behav. 22, 165–196 (2001)

  22. 22.

    , , & Tax evasion and social information: an experiment in Belgium, France, and The Netherlands. Int. Tax Public Finance 22, 401–425 (2015)

  23. 23.

    The scope of cooperation: values and incentives. Q. J. Econ. 123, 905–950 (2008)

  24. 24.

    & Corruption and culture: an experimental analysis. J. Public Econ. 94, 862–869 (2010)

  25. 25.

    & Norms make preferences social. J. Eur. Econ. Assoc. (2015)

  26. 26.

    & Habits of virtue: creating norms of cooperation and defection in the laboratory. Manage. Sci. (2015)

  27. 27.

    Deception: the role of consequences. Am. Econ. Rev. 95, 384–394 (2005)

  28. 28.

    , & Representative evidence on lying costs. J. Public Econ. 113, 96–104 (2014)

  29. 29.

    et al. Context-dependent cheating: experimental evidence from 16 countries. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 116, 379–386 (2015)

  30. 30.

    , & Let’s be honest: a review of experimental evidence of honesty and truth-telling. J. Econ. Psychol. 45, 181–196 (2014)

Download references


We thank A. Arechar, A. Barr, B. Beranek, M. Eberhardt, E. von Essen, E. Fehr, U. Fischbacher, M. García-Vega, A. Greif, B. Herrmann, F. Kölle, L. Molleman, D. Rand, K. Schmelz, S. Shalvi, P. Thiemann, C. Thöni, O. Weisel and seminar audiences for comments. Support under ERC-AdG 295707 COOPERATION and the ESRC Network on Integrated Behavioural Science (NIBS, ES/K002201/1) is gratefully acknowledged. We thank numerous helpers (Supplementary Information) for their support in implementing the experiments.

Author information


  1. University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK

    • Simon Gächter
    •  & Jonathan F. Schulz
  2. CESifo, Schackstrasse 4, 80539 Munich, Germany

    • Simon Gächter
  3. IZA, Schaumburg-Lippe-Strasse 5-9, 53113 Bonn, Germany

    • Simon Gächter
  4. Yale University, 1 Prospect Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06510, USA

    • Jonathan F. Schulz


  1. Search for Simon Gächter in:

  2. Search for Jonathan F. Schulz in:


S.G. and J.S. developed the research ideas and designed the study; J.S. conducted the experiment and analysed data. S.G. and J.S. wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Simon Gächter or Jonathan F. Schulz.

The data and code for the statistical analyses are stored in Dryad Data package title Intrinsic Honesty across Societies, http://dx.doi.org/10.5061/dryad.9k358

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Analysis, additional references, Human subjects Approval and Acknowledgements.

About this article

Publication history






Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.