Laurel Hamers in Science:
When do we decide it’s OK to tell a lie? Perhaps when we see people in positions of power doing the same. A new study finds that individuals are more likely to lie if they live in a country with high levels of institutional corruption and fraud—suggesting that poorly run institutions hurt society in more ways than previously suspected. Past research has shown that people are more likely to break the rules if those around them are also doing so. For instance, people surrounded by graffiti and litter are more likely to drop trash themselves. “But what we really don’t know is to what extent societal norms like political fraud, corruption, and tax evasion trickle down—and to what extent such societal norms corrupt individuals,” says Shaul Shalvi, a behavioral scientist at the University of Amsterdam who was not involved in the work. To find out, researchers pulled data on government corruption, tax evasion, and election fraud from the World Bank and Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that researches democracy and political freedom, for 159 countries. They combined these rates into an index that measured institutionalized rule-breaking.
Then, over the course of almost 5 years, they traveled to 23 of those countries to measure honesty at the individual level. They asked college-aged volunteers to roll a die and report the number that came up. The higher the number, the more the researchers paid the participants—but participants knew the experimenters couldn’t see the results of their rolls. When the average number of the reported die rolls from all the participants in one country turned out to be greater than expected by chance, the researchers knew that some people were lying to get more money. When they compared these rates with institutionalized rule-breaking, they found that people in countries with higher levels of rule-breaking were more likely to cheat on the task, they report today in Nature.