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Individuals are more honest than they think they are

Students returning a wallet they found on the road to the owner.   | Photo Credit: S.K. Mohan

Honesty is essential for personal, social, economic and national development. Yet, we see how people, companies and national governments cheat for self-interest, Does this happen across the 205 countries across the globe? Do individual people value honesty in their personal dealings? This question has been the subject of a recent paper by a group of experts in information gathering and analysis, economists and management scholars (A. Cohn et al “civic honesty around the globe”, Science 10.1126/science.aau8712, 2019). They decided to examine the trade-off between honesty and self-interest in over 17,000 people in 355 cities in 40 countries across the globe. The remarkable result of their experiments is what The Economist wrote about this paper: “Individual people are actually more honest than they think they are!”

The experiment

How did they do the experiment? They had volunteers who would drop a wallet (purse) near a bank, hotel or a police station. The wallet had a transparent cover on one side, where it had a card with the name and contact details of the owner, a shopping list for ordinary items to buy for home (say, milk, bread, medicine etc.). And in one set of wallets there was no money. Some others had some small money (about $14 or the equivalent in local currency), while some others had more ($95 or equivalent). And, in another set, the wallet also had a key in addition. Thus, they had set 1 (wallet with no money), set 2 (small money), set 3 (large money), set 4 (no money, but with key) and set 5 (money with key).

The volunteers dropped such wallets near a public place in the city, watched what a passerby does when he finds the wallet. Does he go to there, hand over the wallet and ask the person in the counter to send the wallet to the owner — what were the results ?

Citizens overwhelmingly turned in more often the lost wallet with money than without. This was seen across the 40 countries across the world.

What if the wallet had “high money”? Did people pocket some or all of the money before turning in the wallet? Did they turn it in because they were afraid of punishment? Or did they expect to get a reward from the owner, while turning in the wallet without pocketing any money? Or was it altruism? This experiment was done in 3 countries (US, UK and Poland) and the results were remarkable: Over 98% of the moneyed wallets were returned! (It would be interesting to do this experiment in the many other countries, which are economically less blessed.)

In the next experiment, they had put in three sets of wallets: one with small money but no key, another with small money plus a key and yet another “money plus key” one. Again the results showed that people turned in wallets with a key than without. It appears that they did not want the owner to suffer. This was fairly seen across the countries tried.

Indian cities

A point of interest to us in India is that these experiments were done using 400 citizens in Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Coimbatore and Kolkata. The results in these cities matched those found elsewhere; notably similar results were found in the Thailand, Malaysia and China in Asia, and in Kenyan and South African cities.

To quote the authors: “We conducted field experiments in 40 countries to examine whether people act more dishonestly when they have a greater economic incentive to do so, and found the opposite to be true. Citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained relatively larger amounts of money. This finding is robust across countries and institutions, and holds even when economic incentives for dishonesty are substantial. Our results are consistent with theoretical models that incorporate altruism and self-image concerns, but also suggest modification in that non-pecuniary motivations directly interact with the material benefits gained from dishonest behavior. When people stand to heavily profit from engaging in dishonest behavior, the desire to cheat increases but so do the psychological costs of viewing oneself as a thief- and sometimes the latter will dominate the former ….Comparative analysis suggested that economically favourable geographic conditions, inclusive political institutions, national education, and cultural values that emphasize moral norms extending beyond one’s in-group are positively associated with rates of civic honesty”.

It would be valuable for us to do such wallet experiments in many parts across India ranging from big cites down to small towns, villages (poor and not so poor) and tribal areas so that we may see how well our results fit in with the general conclusion above. After all India is a mini-world representing much of the 40 countries studied above with comparable economic and social norms, ethical and belief systems.


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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 8:26:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/individuals-are-more-honest-than-they-think-they-are/article28304851.ece

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