Reconsidering the methodology towards China in “Civic Honesty around the Globe”

Sherilyn Shiyin Wang

This month we have an interesting article in Science Volume 365 on page 70–73. This paper tells an interesting story, which provides me the ideas on how to model a complex concept, like honesty. The methodology is inspiring to the sociology community and other communities.

Abstract: Civic honesty is essential to social capital and economic development but is often in conflict with material self-interest. We examine the trade-off between honesty and self-interest using field experiments in 355 cities spanning 40 countries around the globe. In these experiments, we turned in more than 17,000 lost wallets containing varying amounts of money at public and private institutions and measured whether recipients contacted the owners to return the wallets. In virtually all countries, citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained more money. Neither nonexperts nor professional economists were able to predict this result. Additional data suggest that our main findings can be explained by a combination of altruistic concerns and an aversion to viewing oneself as a thief, both of which increase with the material benefits of dishonesty.

Share of wallets reported in the NoMoney and Money conditions, by country.

As a scientific Chinese, it is sad to find that my country falls last in Figure 1. I decided to dig into the details of this experiment.

On the first column of page 2, the authors describe the experiment: After walking into the building, one of our research assistants (from a pool of 11 male and 2 female assistants) approached an employee at the counter and said, “Hi, I found this [pointing to the wallet] on the street around the corner.” The research assistant then placed the wallet on the counter and pushed it over to the employee, saying, “Somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?”The assistant then exited the building without leaving contact details or requesting written proof of having turned in the wallet.

I have also found the pictures of wallets in the supplementary material:

Example of a wallet used in our field experiments. All wallets belonged to a male software developer with country-specific names (see Table S1 for the complete list of names). We placed the business cards in the wallets so that this information was visible to all participants. The wallet dimensions were 93mm x 59mm x 5mm and it weighed approximately 24 grams in the NoMoney condition.

According to page 19 of supplementary material, the experiments are conducted in Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Tianjin, and Xi’an. But they don’t show what type of societal institutions(for example, five-star hotels or family hotels?)

On page 8 of the supplementary material: “We recruited eleven male and two female research assistants to perform the drop-offs. All research assistants were recruited from two German speaking universities and born between 1985 and 1993.” So they actually use English in the experiment in China.

Here I want to add some additional argument for that.

1. Similar to Japan, China has formed the culture to establish “Lost and Found” Box/Office in public places where people collect all the lost items, waiting for the owner to pick up. This paper missed the explanation that the employee did not look for the owner actively but wait passively. According to the experiment setting, the wallets were found near the building. Therefore, it is normal that the employees just put the wallets along with all the other lost items.

2. The use of email for personal communication is rare in China. China did not catch up with the PC era and developed fast in the mobile era. We are more familiar with QQ, WeChat, and SMS. Companies even have WeChat pop-out order confirmations rather than emails. Personally, my email addresses are seldom used in purposes other than fill in some forms and reset my forgotten password. I have never found any Chinese name card without phone number or WeChat ID.

3. Those people who work at the counter do not have a Bachelor degree with high possibility. They are not trained to handle this kind of situation. China is a developing country with unbalanced education resources. There is often only one employee on duty who is fluent in English. The other employees should ask for help when talking with foreigners. However, in this experimental setting, the research assistant did not leave time for them to ask questions or say “pardon” to make it clear what was going on.

In conclusion, civic honesty does not equal wallet reporting rate. Some other factors also affect the reporting rate but are generally believed to have nothing to do with honesty. I sincerely hope my additional explanation will let you have a better knowledge of Figure 1.

When doing experiments in a foreign country, we should take care of the cultural aspects carefully. Sometime we should even reconsider it if that country has a relatively significant value in our figures.


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