6 June 2023

Are poorer people more dishonest? No, but prejudice can have an impact


Most people believe that there is a link between resource scarcity and dishonest behavior. Researchers from the Department of Psychology and the Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science at the University of Copenhagen have now investigated the matter, and they cannot find any connection between resource scarcity, including poverty, and dishonesty.

Coffee picker in Burundi. Photo: Counter Culture Coffee, Flickr.
Living in a poor country like Burundi, where this coffee picker is from, does not increase the propensity to be dishonest for personal gain. This is the conclusion of researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University.

Almost half of the world's population lacks resources and can be considered poor. According to the World Bank, 43.60 % of the world's population have less than DKK 38 per day to live on. 9.20 % live in "extreme poverty" and have less than 13 kroner a day to live on. Even in developed countries, a significant part of the population suffers from poverty and lacks basic resources.

"In 2019, more than one in ten households in the US was unable to provide enough food for one or more members of the household," highlights Lau Lilleholt Harpviken, Assistant Professor at both the Department of Psychology and the Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science.

The trend is upward: high inflation erodes people's incomes, and both food insecurity and poverty are increasing around the globe.

Same level of honesty in richer and poorer countries

Scarcity of resources is inherently bad – but to what extent does it affect one's morale when you are short of money? Lau Lilleholt Harpviken and his colleagues Karolina Ścigała (postdoc at Aarhus University) and Ingo Zettler, professor at the Department of Psychology and the Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science have researched the matter.

The psychologists' investigation, published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, is quite extensive. It includes two pilot studies, three pre-registered online experiments,  a so-called manipulation check study, and a correlational study linking data from more than 44,000 participants across 47 countries to a number of countries' poverty data.

"Together, the studies give a clear picture that neither experimental resource scarcity, nor a scarcity mindset, nor people living in poorer countries are more likely to engage in self-serving dishonesty," concludes Lau Lilleholt Harpviken.

Prejudices can become self-fulfilling

In a final study based on a Danish adult sample, the psychologists could further show that most people – especially men and people with low levels in the personality dimension agreeableness (vs. anger) – mistakenly believe that people who live in poorer countries are more likely to be dishonest.

"In general, research suggests that many people have strong beliefs about financially poor people: that they are lazy, unmotivated, and have low morals," mentions Ingo Zettler.

While poverty in itself does not lead to more dishonesty, notions of the morality of poorer people can have a bearing.

“If people generally believe that poorer people are more dishonest, they may be reluctant to do business with them, invest in their business, hire them, or lend them money. This can make it even more difficult for people to get out of poverty," assesses Lau Lilleholt Harpviken and elaborates:

"Our belief that poorer people are more dishonest can therefore create a self-reinforcing mechanism that keeps people in poverty."

Lau Lilleholt Harpviken and Ingo Zettler see their discoveries as extremely relevant in the global fight against poverty.

"Knowing that poorer people are no more dishonest than others—contrary not only to many people’s beliefs, but also to some prominent Social Science theories from economics and psychology—emphasizes the importance of ensuring that poorer people are not being discriminated by companies, authorities, or society as a whole," points out Ingo Zettler.


Lau Lilleholt Harpviken
Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology and Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science
Mail: llj@psy.ku.dk 
Phone: +45 24 63 34 39

Ingo Zettler
Professor, Department of Psychology and Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science
Mail: ingo.zettler@psy.ku.dk 
Phone: +45 35 32 48 50

Simon Knokgaard Halskov
Press and communications officer
Mail: sih@samf.ku.dk 
Phone: +45 93 56 53 29


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