A team of researchers conducted scientific research and examined honest behaviour across societies in various countries (Cohn et al., 2019). Researchers state that civic honesty is a fundamental trait in functional societies. The team draws attention to heavy costs enacted on society when citizens lack honest behaviour leading to corrupt governments, unpaid taxes, broken promises, unenforced contracts and negative effects on societies. Thus, governments, policymakers, law enforcers, and individuals across the civic and political spheres have a stake in ensuring that their societies stay functional. Diagnosing a problematic trait like dishonesty necessitates close scrutiny into the probable causes, values, and individuals that exhibit such behaviours so that effective solutions may curb negative behaviour.
Conducting sound diagnosis requires the skillful and application of scientific research methods, practices, data collection, analysis of data and information. It is a goal of scientists to deal with certainty and uncover objective truths backed by logic, reason, and evidence after all. Hence, scientific research generates data that allows scientists to study things, draw meaningful correlations between them, and understand their impact. To understand civic honesty requires the acknowledgement of honesty as a trait and human beings to be studied. Because the world is a complex place with many variables that affect each other in innumerable ways, studying a trait like honesty necessitates the closer inspection of people and their behaviour (Lewis, 2017). Scientific research and its practices provide the tools for societal diagnosis steeped in the logical, systematic, empirical processes of data collection and analysis in hopes of providing solutions to reducing civic dishonesty (Enyioko, 2016).
The researchers applied critical social science to the study in civic honesty which incorporates elements from positivist and interpretive approaches. In doing so, researchers operated on the assumption taken by rational economists and experimental literature on civic honesty which states that people valued their self-interests over that of others. This falls in line with positivist social science since it assumes that “humans are rational-thinking and self-interested” (Lim, A., & Siti Syuhada Binte Faizal, 2019). Yet, neither nonexperts nor professional economists could predict the results from this study. The findings contradicted mainstream beliefs. More robust experiments were needed.
Through a deterministic manner, researchers examined the influence of financial incentives on civic honesty. They varied the amount of money in the wallet in two conditions set as “Money” and “NoMoney” and found that wallets containing money were highly likely to be returned than those without. It is crucial to note that the positivist approach deems research to be value-free science and avoids inference from moral-political values. If the study only considered the amount of money as variables, the research would be conducted in a positivist manner. However, researchers incorporated cultural, moral, and political values in this study. This is indicative of an approach going beyond positivism.
Incorporating interpretive social science, researchers looked at other factors that would prompt citizens to report a lost wallet. This approach considers the context, espouses bracketing, and is contingent on local situational factors (Newman, 2014). They considered the influence of the physical environment, legal penalties on citizens failing to report, presence of other individuals and security cameras around the drop-off, state property laws, geographic terrain, distance to waterways, temperature, and many other non-human factors on civic honesty. The collection of such data during field research indicates that the team used the interpretive social science instead. This is because researchers, using the positivist approach, conduct experiments in a lab under controlled conditions, unlike this study where they had little control over many environmental and situational variables.
The researchers also considered current situational and environmental variables over space and time. In looking at honesty, they theorised and looked at broad and intangible factors such as the “transition from agricultural societies to market economies”, robustness checks, economic development, email usage, experimenter effects and more (Cohn et al., 2019). As a result, a high level of interpretation is needed to parse and understand collected data. It is crucial to fold that understanding back into future research in an iterative manner especially when data from the past is incorporated.
Researchers also examined the relationship between civic honesty and historical diseases that could have shaped behaviour. They found a staggering difference in rates of civic honesty that ranged between 14 to 76% and discovered that such disparities remained even after controlling for a country’s gross domestic product. This suggests that other factors, accounted for or not, influenced the behaviour of citizens that in turn affect reporting rates. The research team blended the utility offered by positivist social science that banks on observation and gathering of empirical data, and the context-specific framework offered by interpretive social science. They operated beyond the realms of both approaches.
Researchers espoused the critical social science and analysed data to suggest that national education, cultural values, economic conditions and geography all play a part to inculcate moral norms. They went beyond positivist and interpretive modes of conducting experiments and gathering data while remaining highly critical of the information gathered. The researchers considered alternative explanations in their supplementary analyses. This shows a reflexive-dialectic approach towards information and knowledge that marries the objective and subjective understandings into a cohesive whole (Neuman, 2014).
The team conducted survey experiments in measuring civic honesty. In complying with ethical research principles, researchers created their own email server to collect responses. This means that they were able to control access and own the data. As a result, the team could protect the right to confidentiality for their participants since they did not release information that could identify the recipients. This also safeguards the interest of participants and prevents potential legal, physical, and psychological harm to them. To add, researchers enabled automatic responses and noted return attempts from participants when they misspelled the email address. This measure limits the potential psychological harm as it acknowledges the return attempts of recipients and informs them that the contents of the wallet are not important, thereby putting them at ease.
The next compliant practice in the study involves the selection of countries and cities. Researchers strived for fairness in selection despite the infeasibility in some cases. They used a formula to determine the number of drop-offs as each city had different population numbers and differed in size. They also took pains to cover the main country regions and avoid conducting the drop-offs in cities that “belong to the same metropolitan area”. This promotes compliance with the ethical principle of justice. Participants were randomly selected and not discriminated against since the selection criteria was that of countries and cities rather than age, gender, race or ethnicity (“The Belmont Report”, 1979).
Two practices however, risk compromising research ethics. The first practice is the drop-off procedure. This may violate the ethics of beneficence where the risks to participants could outweigh the benefits of the study. Research assistants handed a wallet to recipients and told them that it was found on a street around the corner. This is a form of deception since the wallets contained fictitious contents and did it belong to anyone. The assistants risked saddling the receiver with an expected burden to contact the owner and inflicting potential psychological stress. Recipients also risked seeing themselves as thieves should they fail to return the wallet. Additionally, the recipients may face more psychological stress upon learning of the results from the study since they inadvertently influenced the reporting rate of their countries.
The next practice that risks compromising research ethics lies in the measurement of recipient characteristics and situational factors. Participants who received the wallet during the drop-off were not informed that they were to be part of a research study. Furthermore, research assistants collected additional information around the drop-offs, such as assessing the “busyness” of the recipient, their gender, age, coworkers, and other bystanders. The bystanders also become unknowing participants as they were also variables that could potentially impact study results. All participants were unaware of data collection. This violates the ethical principles where participants must retain autonomy for themselves and be able to decide whether to participate or withdraw from the research. In being unknowing subjects, recipients lacked informed consent, were not asked to read nor complete consent forms before receiving the wallets, and were also not debriefed. Without the researchers seeking consent from recipients or debriefing them after, the participants were unable to withdraw from the study.
Cohn, A., Maréchal, M. A., Tannenbaum, D., & Zünd, C. L. (2019). Civic honesty around the globe. Science, 365(6448), 70–73. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aau8712
Enyioko, N. C. (2016). The Nature and Essence of Scientific Research. SSRN Electronic Journal. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2735663
Lewis, P. (2017, January 7). The value of research in the social sciences. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/the-value-of-research-in-the-social-sciences
Lim, A., & Siti Syuhada Binte Faizal. (2019). SSC211 Social science research methods (study guide). Singapore: Singapore University of Social Sciences.
Neuman, W. L. (2014). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Limited.
Read the Belmont Report. (1979, April 18). U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/regulations-and-policy/belmont-report/read-the-belmont-report/index.html