Communism, Inequality, Dishonesty

Dan Ariely has been trying, for years, to find evidence that different cultures give rise to different levels of dishonesty. It's an attractive hypothesis – “It seems like it should be true,” Ariely told me - and would add to the growing literature on the cultural influences of human nature. No man is an island, etc.

Unfortunately, Ariely and his collaborators have been unable to find any solid evidence that such differences in dishonesty exist. He's run experiments in the United States, Italy, England, Canada, Turkey, China, Portugal, South Africa and Kenya, but every culture looks basically the same. Bullshit appears to be a behavioral constant.

Until now.

A new study by Ariely, Ximena Garcia-Rada, and Heather Mann at the Duke University Center for Advanced Hindsight and Lars Hornuf at the University of Munich has found a significant difference in levels of dishonesty among German citizens. But here’s the catch – these differences exist within the sample, between people with East German and West German roots.

The experiment went like this. A subject was given a standard six-sided die and asked to throw it forty times. Before the throwing began, he or she was told to pick one side of the die (top or bottom) to focus on. After each throw, the subject wrote down the score from their chosen side. Reporting higher scores made them more likely to get a bigger monetary payout at the end of the experiment.

What does this have to do with lying? Because the subjects never told the scientist which side of the die they selected, they could cheat by writing down the higher number, switching between the top and bottom of the die depending on the roll. For instance, if they rolled a one, they could pretend they had selected the bottom side and report a six instead.

Not surprisingly, people took advantage of the wiggle-room, reporting numbers that were higher than expected given the laws of chance. What was a bit more surprising, at least given Ariely’s history of null results, was that East Germans were significantly more dishonest. While those with roots in the West reported high rolls (4,5 or 6) on 55 percent of their throws, those from the East reported high rolls 60 percent of the time. “Since the scale of possible cheating ranges from 50 percent high rolls to 100 percent high rolls, cheating by West Germans corresponds to 10 percent and cheating by East Germans to 20 percent of what had been feasible,” write the scientists. “Thus, East Germans cheated twice as much as West Germans overall.”

There are a few possible explanations here. The first is that the communist experience of East Germans undermined their sense of honesty. As the scientists note, life in East Germany was defined by layers of deceit. “In many instances, socialism pressured or forced people to work around official laws,” they write. And then there was the Stasi intelligence bureaucracy, which spied on more than a third of all East German citizens. “Unlike in democratic societies, freedom of speech did not represent a virtue in socialist regimes,” write Ariely, et. al. “It was therefore often necessary to misrepresent your thoughts to avoid repressions from the regime.” And so lying became an East German habit, a means of survival, a way of coping with the scarcity and repression. This helps explain why older East Germans – they spent more time under the communist regime – were also more likely to cheat. “Socialistic regimes in general are corrupt, but I don’t think that has to be the case,” Ariely told me. “Personally, I think that in a small socialist society, like a kibbutz, socialism could prosper without corruption.”

But there’s another possible explanation, which is less about the ideological struggle of the Cold War and more about the particular politics of Germany. According to this account, the primary cause of East German dishonesty is not the crooked influence of socialism but rather the hazards of social comparison. East Germans aren’t more dishonest because of their communist experience – they’re more dishonest because of their post-communist existence.

A little history might be helpful. In the run-up to unification, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl famously declared that the five states of Eastern Germany would quickly become “blooming landscapes” under the capitalist system. That didn’t happen. Instead, East Germany was defined by a surge of bankruptcies, chronic unemployment and mass migration. While the situation has certainly improved in recent years – the unemployment rate is “only” a third higher in the East – German income still shows a sharp geographic split, with East Germans making 30 percent less money on average. “If you were born in the East, unification came with lots of promises,” Ariely says. “These promises did not come to full fruition. And I think if you’re an East German then you’re reminded every day of these broken promises…Even generations later there’s still a financial gap.”

Such resentments have real consequences. Previous research has shown that exposing people to abundant wealth, such as a large pile of cash, leads to higher levels of cheating. The same pattern exists when people feel underpaid and when they believe that they’ve been treated unfairly. In short, there appears to be something contagious about ethical lapses. In an unjust world, anything goes; since nothing can make it right, we might as well do wrong.

While both explanations might contribute to the observed result, it’s worth noting that these explanations come with contradictory implications. If communism itself is the problem, then the admirable goal of social equality is inherently flawed, since it’s bound up with increased levels of dishonesty. “To ensure that everyone gets the same thing, you need to give some people less than they deserve, or they think they deserve,” Ariely says. “And when people feel life has treated them unfairly, maybe they feel more okay with cheating and lying.”

However, if the main cause of East German dishonesty is social comparison – those feelings of inferiority generated by being a poor person in a rich country – then the problem isn’t the political quest for equality: it’s current levels of inequality in wealthy capitalist societies. (Remember that Chinese citizens did not show higher levels of dishonesty, which suggests that communism is not solely responsible for the effect.) “It’s getting to the point where there are very few places where the rich and poor really interact,” Ariely says, in reference to the United States. “The contrast is getting more obvious, and that’s a painful daily reminder if you’re not well off.” These reminders seem to make us less honest, or at least more willing to cheat.

So there is no obvious cure. The noble ethos of Marx – “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – seems just as problematic as the unequal outcomes of modern capitalism, in which some mixture of ability and luck determine all. Every political system has flaws that make us dishonest, which is another way of saying that maybe the problem isn’t the system at all.

Ariely, Dan, et al. "The (True) Legacy of Two Really Existing Economic Systems." (2014).