Michel Maréchal: Honesty is a matter of interpretation


Man is by nature bad, said Kant, and with this phrase he coined our self-image. A new study by Michel Maréchal, professor of economics at the University of Zurich, suggests we should reconsider this negative image.

Michel Marechal

You published a study in "Science" that was discussed worldwide. What is the most important finding?

In 40 countries, we handed in over 17 000 found wallets at the reception of various private and public institutions (i.e. hotels, museums, police stations, etc.). We then measured the honesty of the recipients by examining whether they were contacting the owners to return the wallets. With our study, we wanted to investigate how much the financial stimulus to steal undermines honesty. To find this out, we randomly varied the amount of money in the wallets. The results show that the more money there is in the wallet, the more honest people behave.

How surprised were you at the results of the study?

We were very surprised by this counterintuitive result. According to standard economic theory, a higher incentive to cheat should rather reduce people's honesty, certainly not increase it. When planning the experiments, we were sure that this would be the case – so certain that we could not believe the results at first.

But we weren't the only ones surprised. We asked people from the American population and top economists from all over the world to predict our results. Both the general population and the majority of experts expected wallets to be less reported the more money there was in them.

In which situations are we more honest, in which less?

The state of economic and psychological research shows that honesty depends not only on personality traits, but also strongly on the situation. We humans strive for an honest self-image and want to be perceived as honest persons by others. Which behaviors are considered honest or dishonest is a matter of interpretation and therefore also depends on the context. An important influencing factor, for example, is the availability of excuses that can justify dishonest behaviour. Excuses such as "The others do it too" or "It doesn't harm anyone" enable you to maintain your self-image of an honest person despite dishonest behaviour.

How decisive are social norms, moral concepts etc. in your results?

I think that social norms play an important role in our results. In most countries, the social norm that lost items should be returned to their owners is very strong. For example, we have conducted representative population surveys in the United States, Poland and the United Kingdom, which show that 91% of respondents think it is more or less inappropriate to keep a lost wallet. In fact, over 80% of the participants found that it is more or less inappropriate to cheat on tax returns.

What opportunities do the findings of the study open up for society?

Our study shows that even experts have a too pessimistic idea of human behaviour. We underestimate the importance of psychological and moral motives, such as the pursuit of an honest self-image, while overestimating the impact of financial incentives. I, therefore, believe that when designing and implementing incentive mechanisms we should adopt a broader view of people.