Case Studies

Cheating

We know that dishonesty is seen in societies worldwide, but to what extent is there variation between countries in the amount of dishonesty? This research tested whether what country someone is from affects levels of dishonesty through the use of a novel, abstract task.

Hypothesis: We predicted that there would be differences in levels of dishonesty between countries. Specifically, we believed that in countries where corruption is high there would be a greater norm of dishonesty being acceptable.

Experiment: Participants in several different countries (with varying levels of corruption) were given a digital dice rolling task on an iPad. In this task, participants were provided with an opportunity and a financial incentive to cheat. Participants rolled a die and were paid based on the number of dots they rolled. At the beginning, participants were instructed to choose either the top or bottom of the die before rolling without revealing their choice to anyone else. Participants “rolled” the die, saw an image which displayed both the top/bottom, and indicated which side they had chosen. Thus, on any roll where the participant originally decided to select the unfavorable side, they had the opportunity to cheat and claim to have originally chosen the higher value side. While it was not possible to tell if any individual participant was lying, it was possible to determine the statistical likelihood of dishonesty across the whole sample. Since the sample size was large enough, an honest sample would choose the favorable side about 50% of the time. By comparing the observed portion of reported favorable rolls with the “expected” 50%, we obtained an estimate of how honest subjects were in each country.

Results: For all 10 participant samples, the mean proportion of favorable reports on the die task was significantly above chance. However, our results suggest that country-level cultural variables have limited influence on generalized dishonesty.

The mean proportion of favorable reports on the dice task was significantly above chance in all of the samples. For example, the distribution of outcomes in American students is shown below.

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However, our results suggest that country-level cultural variables have limited influence on generalized dishonesty, as shown in the graph below by the similar results across countries.  

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Application: At a policy level, these findings suggest that programs aimed at promoting general morality are unlikely to have lasting effectiveness. Instead, programs aimed at establishing honesty norms for specific behaviors may be more effective. While culture may influence norms for dishonesty in specific situations, it seems it has limited impact on generalized dishonesty.