Eliciting preferences for truth-telling in a survey of politicians

Publication in PNAS by Katharina Janezic ’16 (Economics) and Aina Gallego (IBEI and IPEG)

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Honesty is one of the most valued traits in politicians. Yet, because lies often remain undiscovered, it is difficult to study if some politicians are more honest than others. This paper examines which individual characteristics are correlated with truth-telling in a controlled setting in a large sample of politicians. We designed and embedded a game that incentivizes lying with a non-monetary method in a survey answered by 816 Spanish mayors. Mayors were first asked how interested they were in obtaining a detailed report about the survey results, and at the end of the survey, they had to flip a coin to find out whether they would be sent the report. Because the probability of heads is known, we can estimate the proportion of mayors who lied to obtain the report.

We find that a large and statistically significant proportion of mayors lied. Mayors that are members of the two major political parties lied significantly more. We further find that women and men were equally likely to lie. Finally, we find a negative relationship between truth-telling and reelection in the next municipal elections, which suggests that dishonesty might help politicians survive in office.

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