How Honest Is Your Homeland?

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Why you should care

Because, well, to be honest …

Read Murakami or Tolstoy or Woolf and you’ll see that the concept of truth gets beaten to a dead-horse pulp in literature. Writers know it’s a tricky business, one prone to, shall we say, interpretation. Researchers have also long been interested in honesty, and a new study actually ranks nations according to Pinocchio population density:

China, South Korea and India rank among the least honest places in the world, according to a recent study.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., surveyed 1,500 participants from 15 nations. They tested honesty — after all, what is truth, anyway? — in two ways. First, respondents were asked to flip a coin and report which side it landed on. If they reported heads, they knew they would receive $3 to $5. If more than half a country’s respondents reported heads, then someone was probably lying. On that test, the U.K. ranked most honest, China the least. Second, the same participants were asked to complete a quiz for which they received money for answering all the questions correctly; they also had to check a box saying they hadn’t looked up any answers online. The tricky part? Researchers rigged three of the questions by making them virtually impossible to solve unassisted. Get more than one right, and you’re now a cheater too — in this case, the Japanese were the least likely to fib.

Using surveys to test whether a country is full of liars is dangerous because, well, they might just lie, points out Maria Hartwig, a psychology professor at the City University of New York. But studies of almost every culture show that people believe liars don’t just feel guilt about lying, they show it: by fidgeting, looking away, stuttering, etc. “It benefits the entire culture to permeate this idea that lies do show,” Hartwig says, even if that might not actually be true. “It’s a form of social control.” The sad thing: Those British researchers found evidence of dishonesty in every country tested. “Surprisingly, people were more pessimistic about the honesty of people in their own country than of people in other countries,” says David Hugh-Jones, the study’s lead researcher, which he chalks up to us hearing more about homegrown scandals than those in other countries. “So then we all think our own countries are uniquely ‘going to the dogs.’”

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