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Regular version of the site

Honesty Test

Why Russians Were Asked to Toss a Coin

People lie more often than it may seem. Studies reveal that 60% of people lie at least once during a 10-minute conversation. Researchers at the HSE Laboratory for Experimental and Behavioural Economics have examined people's tendency to lie from the economic perspective, i.e. whether and under what circumstances an individual will tell a lie knowing that it might bring them financial gain. 

Sometimes, ethical principles stop people from lying for money. According to a paper by Alexis Belianin, the subjects of social experiments in Russia may be less likely to lie in such circumstances compared to people in some other countries.

Heads or Tails

The Laboratory staged a social experiment in late 2016 and early 2017, using three different groups of some 550 people in total:

  • 221 people having paid 100 to 500 rubles each for a ticket to a film screening at a film festival in Moscow;
  • 230 employees of a major Russian bank planning to watch the same film;
  • 96 undergraduates from a few cities in Russia and CIS countries attending HSE's winter school.

The experiment was conducted under real-life conditions involving real money.

Each subject was asked to take a coin out of their wallet, toss it five times, record the number of heads and tails on a special form and its tear-off stub, fold the form and hand it to the researcher, keeping the stub.

No one verified the actual number of heads and tails, so the participants could write anything, knowing in advance that five consecutive heads would bring them 500 rubles and four heads would bring them 100 rubles.

The researchers did not cheat and always paid the money. But what about the subjects?

Profit versus Self-respect

In the first two groups, the results were close to a standard distribution calculated using a mathematical model.

In other words, both groups of 'movie-goers' were generally honest. "For well-off people, the financial gain of 100 or even 500 rubles is not big enough to sacrifice their self-respect and integrity. Even though no one would ever know, cheating could affect their self image in a way they did not find worth the money," according to Belianin.

But perhaps increasing the gain would have made a difference? The results of the third group consisting of undergraduates for whom 500 rubles was a fairly big amount suggest that this might be the case. The third group's responses differed significantly from the standard distribution.

"For people with lower incomes, the same incentives for cheating appear to be stronger, leading to less honest responses," notes Belianin.

People Who Return Lost Wallets

While the above findings cannot be extrapolated to all Russians, by comparing them to similar studies in other countries, the researchers made the following conclusions:

  First, for Russians, as well as for people in other countries, the decision whether or not to cheat for financial gain is influenced by ethical standards, social norms and self-image. Standards and norms often prevail, particularly in well-off people who refrain from lying for a relatively small gain.

  Second, Russian research subjects are not more – and perhaps even less – likely to cheat than people in many other countries. This conclusion is supported by a recent cross-country experiment to measure institutional honesty conducted by Alain Cohn and co-authors. According to Belianin, Cohn's experiment measured honesty by "turning in apparently lost wallets to various institutions, such as post offices, banks and police stations, and observing whether the institution would contact the wallet owner. In this experiment, Russia scored above the cross-country average with more than a 50% return rate."


Alexis Belianin, Head, Laboratory for Experimental and Behavioural Economics; Assistant Professor, HSE International College of Economics and Finance

Author: Svetlana Saltanova, September 18, 2017