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The Honest Truth About Dishonesty and how it shapes corruption in China

I recently finished Dan Ariely’s book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, and realized that I’ve been thinking about corruption in the wrong way. While I’m not about to argue that there are “acceptable levels” of it, in the way Global Times tried, I do think we are overlooking a few key points.

For one, as Ariely argues, cases of embezzlement and fraud are not made up largely of Madoff’s (or Liu Zhijun’s), but of small daily acts by very ordinary people. He shows through his research that for the most part everyone is willing to cheat a little, and that massive cheats are actually far more rare than they should be (if one assumes that a person would cheat as much as is possible without repercussions), and that we should be much more concerned about the tens of millions of officials that go unnoticed.

The way Ariely and his fellow researchers tested their theories was with a basic math quiz, which allowed participants to lie about their score. They were then paid according to the score they reported to gauge how great of an effect variables had on people’s willingness to cheat. Surprisingly, people were unwilling to claim that they had solved all the questions correctly, even though there was plenty of opportunity to do so.

Ultimately, Ariely reasons, cheating is something that needs to be rationalized by the individual so that they can continue to see themselves as a decent person. The massive scams typically involve people who are very good at rationalizing what they are doing. This may explain some officials’ rather unbelievable claims about their “legal income” that seems completely beyond what they are earning on paper. Corrupt officials have likely convinced themselves that they aren’t doing anything wrong. Ariely’s research seems to suggest that something as simple as a pledge at the start of a work day or document could curb some abuse, as it would remind the individuals that these small acts are unacceptable.

There were also several factors that caused an increase in cheating that seemed to correlate to China’s officials. One is that removing physical cash from the equation greatly increased people’s dishonesty. If the award is something like a banquet, a wedding gift for a child, or perhaps a nice box of tea it would be easier to accept without guilt than cash. This means that the periodic gov’t crackdowns on gift cards may actually be more useful than they might have seemed at the outset. Another factor is something as simple as wearing knockoffs, which Dan argues results in the individual viewing themselves as more dishonest, causes people to cheat more to fit this new self-image. I would imagine there would be a similar effect on individuals who wear watches that were “gifted” in a dishonest fashion.

The biggest influence on dishonesty though is a demonstration of someone else cheating without punishment, which most officials likely get a glimpse of in their first gov’t position. I say this based on what I have seen within the schools that I’ve worked in, and the public hospital where administrators wined and dined without rebuke.

However, Ariely did discover that virtually every country’s culture is similarly corrupt, even though people often feel that their culture is especially corrupt (China was included in these tests, and the Chinese researcher was surprised to find there was no difference).  He did believe though that certain professions foster a culture that are more corrupt than others, with gov’t officials being among some of the top offenders (regardless of country).

So then, what lessons can we draw from this book about China? For one, the absolute most effective way of curbing cheating was to be supervised by a a third-party who had zero contact with the individual prior to or during the experiment. However, when the third-party was given time to get familiar with the individual, normal levels of cheating returned, and even slightly increased. This would seem to imply that China’s current system of corruption monitoring is faulty by design. Monitors should not be Party members, they should be frequently reassigned to limit fraternization, and should be closely monitored themselves (perhaps by an unrestrained media, or the citizenry). It would also abandon the idea that harshly punishing a few individuals would be enough to send a message to the rest.

We should also bear in mind that the daily, seemingly minor abuses, are likely more costly than the scandals that are too large to cover up. In a country with tens of millions of gov’t employees, if each employee enjoyed 100rmb in banquets per year (which is an insanely conservative figure), the cost to the citizens would be over a billion yuan (more than Liu Zhijun is said to have embezzled). To reach the level of monitoring that would be required to effectively crackdown on this kind of corruption, the gov’t would have to open their books to the public, which they are loathe to do.


  1. I’ve been reading Dan Ariely’s stuff for a while now and I think it’s pretty fascinating although pretty common sense! I’ve been hoping for someone to connect the dots about what his research shows and the implications for China. Well done. I think it was particularly funny how the Chinese researcher was shocked to find that their country was no more corrupt then other countries! Love the site and read it often!

  2. says:

    I, too, am a big fan of Dan Ariely’s. His research tells us all kinds of interesting things about how we function. I would love to see more China-specific psychology research published, though.

  3. Chris says:

    Could not access the book. What was the Chinese researcher’s explanation for why Chinese are basically not having more natural tendency to corruption then others, still they feel corruption is more widespread in China?

  4. […] I recently finished Dan Ariely's book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, and realized that I've been thinking about corruption in the wrong way. While I'm not about to argue that there are “acceptable levels” of it, in the way …  […]

  5. […] i tot sense grans casos de corrupció, només sumant petits actes individuals de deshonestedat (una estimació -a la baixa- de la petita corrupció acumulada a l’administració xinesa podria ser superior al desfalc massiu de Liu […]

  6. LPM says:

    Dan Ariely is an idiot. The fact that he thinkgs that China is no more corrupt than other countries demonstrates that his research has NO EXTERNAL VALIDITY.

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