Cheating not tied to poverty, researchers find in study of Thai farmers

December 8, 2020

Sunlight shining on rice fields in Thailand. (David Gardiner, Unsplash)

Corruption and impulses to cheat are not caused by poverty, researchers found, casting doubt on long-held associations between dishonesty and economic status.

In a study published in Games and Economic Behavior, researchers examined behavioral impulses of Thai farmers when they were in both poor and wealthy states, finding that shifts in their fortunes had no impact on their willingness to cheat. The lack of association remained even when cheating offered a substantial financial reward.

“Poverty itself doesn’t lead to immorality,” said Agne Kajackaite, head of the ethics and behavioral economics research group at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. “Morals don’t change depending on your needs.”

The work, funded by Columbia University, focused on rice farmers in 48 villages in rural Thailand. Researchers also included Suparee Boonmanunt of Mahidol University in Thailand and Stephan Meier of Columbia Business School in New York City.

Thai rice farmers’ incomes are closely tied to the harvest, which happens just once a year, meaning the farmers are relatively poor in the months before the harvest and rich immediately afterward. The 568 workers studied were all in similar economic straits, giving researchers a unique opportunity to explore a causal relationship between poverty and cheating, rather than merely a correlational one. 

“There’s some correlational evidence out there showing rich people cheat a lot, poor people cheat a lot, but there are so many variables,” said Kajackaite, who holds a doctoral degree in economics from the University of Cologne. “So we had this idea that we do it in a village where all people are at one time rich and at another time poor.” 

To examine the tendency to cheat, researchers asked participants to randomly draw a piece of paper with a number between one and 10 from an envelope, secretly look at the number on the paper, then return it to the envelope. Participants were then asked to report what number they had drawn for a financial reward of that number times 10 Thai baht. The maximum possible reward of 100 baht -- or roughly $3.30 -- was worth several days of income, potentially incentivizing the farmers to lie.

Since farmers were equally likely to draw each number from one to 10, the average payout should have been 55 baht. The average payout came to 64 baht -- both before and after the harvest. The result indicated that while cheating occurred, the tendency was not affected by relative wealth.

“When they really, really needed cash, they didn’t cheat more,” said Kajackaite. “Even though from an economic perspective you really should.” The experiment was based on a similar study, published in Science in 2013 that examined sugarcane farmers in India before and after harvest to measure the effects of poverty.

Working from Berlin and New York, Kajackaite and Meier designed the study but did not travel to Thailand to conduct it. Boonmanunt and her Thai assistants took the lead on the ground, securing the approval of village leaders and recruiting participants across rural areas of Ubon Ratchathani, a province in northeast Thailand. 

Having only Thai experimenters interact with the farmers may have aided the study effort, since the farmers may have reacted differently to foreign researchers, Kajackaite said.

“I’m blonde. He is also kind of blonde,” she said, referring to Meier. “There would be a large experimenter effect.” 

In addition to testing the relationship between poverty and cheating, Kajackaite, Meier and Boonmanunt also examined whether reminding participants of social norms would affect their honesty. To that end, before conducting each experiment, they told half of the farmers that a survey showed that other people in their region found cheating unacceptable. The other half were not reminded of social norms. 

In the pre-harvest experimental groups, reminding the farmers of social norms did not lead to a significantly different amount of cheating. However, when post-harvest farmers were reminded of social norms, they cheated significantly less, reporting an average number of 6.0 compared with a baseline of 6.4. 

That means reminding people of social norms is more effective when they are relatively financially secure, Kajackaite said, a conclusion she could have implications for government policy. 

“The timing of interventions matters,” she said. “You should choose a period when people are doing well financially.” 

The researchers conducted fieldwork in 2017 and published their findings in the November, 2020 issue of Games and Economic Behavior. Before submitting the paper to economics publications, the group attempted to publish their work in science and psychology journals, Kajackaite said. 

The authors of the study were Suparee Boonmanunt, Mahidol University; Agne Kajackaite, WZB Berlin Social Science Center; and Stephan Meier, Columbia University. The lead author was Suparee Boonmanunt. 

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