Britain has the most trustworthy citizens in the world because our politicians are less corrupt than those abroad, say psychologists, suggesting honesty really is the best policy.
New research has found that honesty is not a universal trait, but is primarily governed by the ethics of a country’s leaders. If elections are rigged or politicians are open to bribes, or there is high level of tax evasion and fraud, then the bad behaviour from on-high trickles down into the general population.
Academics at the University of Nottingham tested the honesty of 2,500 young people who were unlikely to be aware of the level of corruption in their homeland.
They were asked to roll a die in private and were given a cash reward based on the number rolled. The higher the number the more money they received. Comparing their reported results to the probability distribution of dice roles, researchers could tell if they were lying about their score. British students were found to be the most honest, along with those from Sweden, Germany, Lithuania and Italy. At the other end of the scale were those from Tanzania, Morocco, China and Vietnam.
The authors say the study shows that the price of corruption for society goes far deeper than purely financial, and can have a devastating psychological impact.
“Ethical values, including honesty, are transmitted from prestigious people, peers and parents,” said lead author Dr Simon Gachter, professor of psychology and economic decision making at the University of Nottingham.
“People often take high-status individuals such as business leaders and celebrities as role models, and their cheating can set bad examples for dishonest practices
“Similarly, if politicians set bad examples by using fraudulent tactics like rigging elections, nepotism and embezzlement, then the honesty of citizens might suffer, because corruption is fostered in wider parts of society.
“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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The authors say that widespread fraud and corruption tends to lead to a‘shadow economy’ where citizens start believing it is acceptable to live outside of traditional moral codes.
“If cheating is pervasive in society and goes often unpunished, then people might view dishonesty in certain everyday affairs as justifiable,” added Dr Gachter.
“If many people work in the shadow economy and thereby evade taxes, peer effects might make cheating more acceptable.
“If corruption is endemic in society, parents may recommend a positive attitude towards corruption and other acts of dishonesty
“Experiencing frequent unfairness, an inevitable by-product of cheating, can also increase dishonesty.”
According to Transparency International, which monitors corruption in countries across the world. Britain has improve significantly since 2012, and is now in the top 10 least corrupt countries in the world. The improvement has been driven by government attempts to crack down on bribery and tax evasion in recent years.
According to the study it should mean that Britons are getting more honest.
Dr Shaul Shalvi of the Center for Research in Experimental Economics and Political Decision Making at the University of Amsterdam, said: “Corruption not only deprives people of economic prosperity and growth, but also jeopardizes their intrinsic honesty.
“Several intriguing questions remain open for future work. How long does it take for an individual’s honesty to be shaped by their country’s score?
“According to a survey by Transparency International, corruption levels fell significantly in several countries, including Britain, Greece and Senegal, between 2012 and 2015. When should we expect to see more honesty in these countries?”
The research was published in the journal Nature.