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Intrinsic honesty and the prevalence of rule violations across societies


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.

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Figure 1: Distributions of reported die rolls.
Figure 2: Measures of honesty and the prevalence of rule violations in society.

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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.

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Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Simon Gächter or Jonathan F. Schulz.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

The data and code for the statistical analyses are stored in Dryad Data package title Intrinsic Honesty across Societies,

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 The die-in-a-cup task.

Experiment following Fischbacher and Föllmi-Heusi5. Participants (n = 2,568 from 23 countries) were asked to roll the die twice in the cup and to report the first roll. Payment is according to reported roll, except that reporting a 6 earns 0 money units (across subject pools, money units in local currency are adjusted to equalize purchasing power). We used the same set of dice in all subject pools, and we also tested the dice for bias. The procedures followed established rules in cross-cultural experimental economics. See Supplementary Information for further details. This picture was taken by J.S. in the experimental laboratory of the University of Nottingham.

Extended Data Figure 2 Distribution of claims.

a, Distribution per subject pool. Subject pools are ordered by country PRV. The first 14 subject pools (in green) are from ‘low’ (below-average) PRV countries; the last 9 subject pools (in red) are from ‘high’ (above-average) PRV countries relative to the world sample of 159 countries. The horizontal line refers to the uniform distribution implied by honest reporting and the step function to the distribution implied by the justified dishonesty benchmark (JDB). For each subject pool, we report the one-sample Kolmogorov–Smirnov test (KS) for discrete data in comparison with JDB (KSD is the KS d value). Asterisks above bars refer to binomial tests comparing the frequency of a particular claim with its predicted value under a uniform distribution. b, Cumulative distributions for pooled data from subject pools from low and high PRV countries, respectively. See Supplementary Information for further information. *P < 0.1, **P < 0.05, ***P < 0.01.

Source data

Extended Data Figure 3 Association between indicators of institutional quality and intrinsic honesty as measured by mean claim.

The solid line is a linear fit. The JDB is indicated by a dashed line. Rho indicates Spearman rank order correlation coefficients. ad, Mean claim is negatively related to Government Effectiveness (a), Constraint on executive (b), ‘fairness of electoral process and participation’ (c) and Constraint on Executive (d) using the averages of the years 1890 to 1900 as a measure for distant institutional quality. See Extended Data Table 1 and Supplementary Information for data description, references and further analyses.

Source data

Extended Data Figure 4 Association between cultural indicators and intrinsic honesty as measured by mean claim.

The solid line is a linear fit. The JDB is indicated by a dashed line. Rho indicates Spearman rank order correlation coefficients. ac, Mean claim is negatively related to individualism (a), traditional versus secular-rational values (b), and survival versus self-expression values (c). See Extended Data Table 1 and Supplementary Information for data description, references and further analyses.

Source data

Extended Data Table 1 Measures of prevalence of rule violations, economic and institutional variables, as well as cultural background of our subject pools
Extended Data Table 2 Regression analysis of societal and individual determinants of dishonesty
Extended Data Table 3 Institutional and cultural determinants of PRV

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Analysis, additional references, Human subjects Approval and Acknowledgements. (PDF 2559 kb)

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Gächter, S., Schulz, J. Intrinsic honesty and the prevalence of rule violations across societies. Nature 531, 496–499 (2016).

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