The truth about Honesty
Let's be honest here
Trust is at historical lows in most western societies (according to the Edelman trust barometer). It seems each day brings new revelations about the dishonesty of institutions we’re told to trust; politicians, banks, the police force, education, social media, the church, it’s almost endless. Honesty, it seems, is hard to come by these days, despite it being one of the foundations on which society is built.
Governments around the world require honesty of their citizens for reporting of income, for paying tax, declaring their assets and a range of everyday functions – even giving your credit card details over the phone relies on honesty for the transaction to work. Society doesn’t just desire honesty, it wouldn’t function effectively without it. Making honesty salient – or front of mind – can induce more honest behaviours, and governments are looking for ways to do just that.
White lies are still lies
Researchers like BehaviourWorks Australia’s Nick Faulkner are working to help government bodies increase citizens’ honesty, as it’s estimated that dishonesty costs society hundreds of millions each year. Nick has been reviewing the literature on what factors affect people’s behaviour when it comes to being honest and is co-writing a report for publication which synthesises the factors associated with honesty.
So how do we go about making ethics – and honesty – salient? Studies show an effective technique is to literally make it front and centre, such as moving the location of the signature from the bottom to the top of an agreement or form. This upfront commitment to honesty frames our engagement with the document, prompting us to think about ethics and honesty before we start.
Lies, damn lies and statistics
The data around demographics and ethics reveals some interesting insights – for instance, a higher level of education means you’re more likely to be honest. Being creative, on the other hand, means you’re more likely to be dishonest (i.e. creative accounting). Even the major you studied at university is associated with honesty – some studies suggest that students majoring in business and economics are more likely to be dishonest than others. The speculation is that they understand the benefits that cheating can accrue, and work the system accordingly.
Making people self-report honestly to government is a complex and difficult task. Few governments are well equipped to regulate it, and most studies can’t identify individuals who are or are not honest. But we can help design systems and processes that ‘nudge’ people towards better behaviour; remember, it was the wording of a letter sent to British taxpayers that boosted UK government income by millions of pounds:
“The great majority of people in pay their tax on time” made honesty not only salient, but a social norm.
It seems that when we sign up for honesty, literally or mentally, it works.