Can we make Liars more Honest?





In this post, Alanda Kariza, a fellow Warwick MSc Behavioural and Economic Science graduate, will write about honesty vs. corruption. Alanda currently works as the Indonesian Community Manager for Quora. She’s based in Jakarta and recently became a mother of one.



First of all, I’d like to thank Merle for giving me a space to write in Money on the Mind. Having graduated from the same MSc, yet continuing to work outside of the behavioural science field, sometimes I worry I will get disconnected from the industry updates and theories I learned in the university. Money on the Mind is one of my go-to blogs to remind me everything about behavioural science/economics, and even learn so many more.


I am going to write a bit about the research that I did for my masters dissertation two years ago. A glimpse of it has now been published as a part of a chapter in Dishonesty in Behavioral Economics, edited by Alessandro Bucciol and Natalia Montinari, published by Academic Press. You can see the book on Elsevier here.


Alright. The title sounds like a big headline — but that was the grand idea in my head before I decided what my dissertation going to be about. Coming from a country that ranks 96th (out of 180 countries) in the Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index, I wanted to do research on this issue related to behavioural science, with the hope that it can pave a way of solving the issue in Indonesia. Insights from behavioural science have been applied to a variety of issues in public policy, and I believe that corruption should be one of the issues that can be effectively tackled by behavioural science. Unfortunately, the field itself has not been widely explored in Indonesia and I could say I am one of the first batch who decided to pursue this field of study.


When we talk about corruption, we have to also talk about honesty. Prior to writing my dissertation, I tried to immerse myself in the literature about honesty and dishonesty, including Dan Ariely’s book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone, Especially Ourselves (2012). Ariely has done extensive work in various topics within the behavioural science sphere. One of them is dishonesty, and I wanted to explore the issue of corruption through this lens.


Inspired by Dan Ariely’s extensive work on dishonesty, together with my supervisor, I designed an experiment to see whether Indonesian citizens lie about their petty corruption experience. Petty corruption includes things like bribing the police when you get a parking ticket and buying gifts for teachers so your kid can pass the grade. Certain types of corruption in Indonesia used to be so common, that giving the police money is not considered as corruption, but more like “helping them buy cigarettes.” Do you see what people do here? Two “negative” things in one go. Bad business that is!


To combat this issue we designed a survey that asks whether a citizen has done a certain kind of petty corruption, ranked according to their severity. For the design of the survey and treatment conditions, we looked to research by Shu et al. (2012). For the intervention, we added a declaration of honesty at the beginning of the survey (Intervention Group A). According to Shu et al. (2012), signing a declaration of honesty “makes ethics salient and decreases dishonest self-reports”. We also added another kind of intervention, that on top of signing a declaration of honesty, respondents also had to see a list of petty corruption activities and answer whether those activities are “acceptable” or not (Intervention Group B).


The results show that apparently asking respondents to sign a declaration of honesty at the beginning of the survey does not really make a difference. The amount of petty corruption activities admitted in the regular group and Intervention Group A is pretty much the same. On the contrary, asking respondents to rate whether a petty corruption act is acceptable (or not!) actually primed them in some ways. Instead of becoming more honest — measured by admitting more corruption acts, Intervention Group B - who had been exposed by a list of petty corruption actions that they had to rate as acceptable or not - admit less of corruption acts. It’s probable that the part of the survey that asks them to direct the social norm, on whether something is acceptable or not, reminds them regarding how bad their actions are and may have made them more embarrassed in admitting them.



Using insights from behavioural science to solve the issue of corruption, especially in developing countries, can still be widely explored as it has not been discussed as much. While writing this blog post, I found a number of articles on this topic worth reading, if we would like to discuss about this further:

The Subtle Science of Nudging Anti-Corruption

Corruption: Can a behavioural approach shift the dial?

Behavioural changes against corruption



Compared to these, my research was rather simple. I wish I was able to do a more complex research, but given the time and budget constraints, it was not possible. This is why I am writing about this on Money on the Mind (corruption usually involves money and greed, right?), as I would love to see more people discussing using behavioural insights to make people less corrupt, and in turn, make developing countries prosper better with a wealth that is more stable and more evenly distributed.

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