There Surely Is Optimism for Human Character – II Part of the Interview with Professor Alain Cohn

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In this part two of the interview with Professor Cohn we learn if there is a disparity in the level of honesty among different social groups, the differences of the level of honesty across countries, the subject pools he uses for his studies, his unique methods relating to his research, his motivations and more.

Honesty
There Surely Is Optimism for Human Character: Honesty

Read the I part of the interview with Professor Alain Cohn about honesty.

Are Humans More Honest Than Dishonest? An Interview with Professor Alain Cohn


 

What Is Honesty?

Please tell us about honesty across different cultures?

We find substantial differences in the level of honesty across countries but the increase in honesty with higher financial incentives for dishonesty is remarkably consistent across the globe.

Besides how wealthy a country is, there are other societal factors that might explain why citizens are more honest in some countries than others.

In our article, we focus on factors that are less likely to change over time because this helps us distinguish between cause and effect.

For example, we find higher levels of honesty in regions with colder climates, longer winters and more volatile temperatures.

A possible reason for this pattern is that communities that historically lived under harsher and less predictable climate conditions had to cooperate with other social groups, and so they had to develop prosocial norms.

We also find evidence suggesting that historic cultural factors play a role in honest behavior.

For example, cultures with strong family and clan systems tend to be less honest.

The lower level of honesty could be due to the relatively high emphasis on loyalty towards in-group members and the reduced trust towards strangers in those cultures.

Finally, we also find that countries with better education systems are more honest. It seems plausible that schools not only teach “hard” skills like math and writing, but also “soft” skills like how to treat others (and their property) with respect.

 

Your studies have involved ‘non standard subject pools’ such as financial professionals, millionaires and criminals. Please tell us more about this and are there, broadly or even specifically speaking, certain subjects that are more honest than others?

A general finding is that people are more honest than we tend to think.

A general finding is that people are more honest than we tend to think. Thus, we seem to have an overly pessimistic view about other people’s prosociality.

Our judgment of others also seem to be influenced by stereotype thinking. For example, when study participants had to predict the levels of honesty of different social groups, they thought that bankers are more dishonest than inmates of a maximum security prison.

Studying how honest certain professions or social groups are compared to others is more challenging though because groups differ along many dimensions, not just the one we would like to study.

For example, bankers may be more affluent and have a higher education than incarcerated criminals on average.

So if we simply compare the two groups we may not know what drives the difference in honesty.

However, we found that how people see themselves affects their tendency to behave honestly. For example, if you remind prisoners that they are criminals then they become more dishonest. 

Professor Alain Cohn with children
Professor Alain Cohn with his children

 

You are known to use methods across economics, social psychology, sociology and neuro sciences please tell us more about this?

I simply believe we can make better scientific progress by combining insights and methods from different disciplines. In my research, I usually start with the research question and then ask myself what would be the best approach to answer that question.

This sometimes means that I have to read and understand the literature outside my field, which is not always easy because each field has its own “language” and way to think about things.

Conducting interdisciplinary research also means that you have to be particularly careful when explaining things and do a little more persuasion work than usual because your peers (e.g. the reviewers) may not be familiar with the methods or concepts used.

Nonetheless, this hasn’t discouraged me to adopt an interdisciplinary approach because I enjoy learning new things.

 

Your research areas are unique and so are your methods. Could you tell us about your self motivation and those who motivated you towards your field of expertise?

I was fortunate to get the opportunity to do a PhD with Prof. Ernst Fehr, one of the leading behavioral economists.

He is known for crossing disciplinary boundaries and so our group not only consisted of economists, but also researchers from related fields such as psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and philosophy.

The main theme of our work was to uncover and analyze behavioral deviations from the rational self-interest model in economics (homo economicus).

We, as a group, investigated questions related to human prosociality and altruism, asking questions such as when and why are people willing to cooperate and help others at a cost to themselves, and what can be done to encourage such behavior?

Voluntary cooperation and altruism is rather rare in the animal world but so central to a well-functioning society.

Thus, answering these questions is not only of scientific interest, but also of immediate practical importance.

For example, many societal problems from global warming to social inequalities and the public’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic can at least partly be attributed to a lack in people’s willingness to cooperate with others.

It was not just the research focus that gave me the feeling that I’m in the right place, it was also the people who I worked with.

Ernst Fehr is in so many ways a fantastic mentor and someone you can learn a lot from. I still call him my “scientific father” and carefully listen to his advice, not just about research.

During my PhD, I also met my long-term co-author Michel Maréchal. We work incredibly well together, not only because we get along really well but also because we inspire each other and set high expectations for ourselves (and others).

He became my best friend and godfather of my first child. After completing my PhD, I spent three years in Chicago as a postdoctoral researcher.

I was again very fortunate to have great advisors, including Prof. Richard Thaler who is one of the founding fathers of behavioral economics and the 2017 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Richard Thaler is not just a world-class researcher, but he is also easy to talk with and has a great sense of humor.

What keeps me going is not just the research that I do but also the people I’m fortunate to work with.

 

Please tell us about your growing up years.

I grew up in a middle-class family in Zurich, Switzerland and basically spent all my life there before moving to the U.S.

I had a wonderful childhood and very supportive parents. For example, my mom used to accompany me to Judo competitions almost every weekend, and my dad supported my passion for ice hockey.

I was (and still am) a sports enthusiast, but I also liked going to school. I think this has to do with my drive to constantly improve and learn new things.

Not only my parents but also Judo was very instrumental for my personal development. Because Judo is rooted in Japanese culture, it teaches you values like being helpful and respectful to others.

But it also taught me to be perseverant and confident, both of which I believe have helped me succeed in my academic career.

After high school, I decided to study economics.

Although I knew almost nothing about it, I remember being drawn to economics because I was fascinated by the difficult task of predicting future asset prices.

There was something about the interplay between fundamental factors (e.g. firm performance) and psychological factors (e.g. emotions) that got me interested.

Later on, I gravitated towards microeconomics, the study of individual decision making. I think it was the combination of great teachers and exposure to the method of experiments that got me hooked.

Designing an experiment requires you to be creative and when you run the experiment it’s like watching a sports game — you never know what happens next.

So I began to take more and more classes in experimental or behavioral economics until I got lucky and was offered a PhD position in that field.

 

Our readers are mainly the youth from different parts of the world who look up to achievers such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?

My father used to tell me to be curious in life, which I think was great advice for me.

For example, at the dinner table he often asked me questions about why things work the way they do. He also used to challenge me to explain to him in detail why I liked a particular toy.

My mom who is a very smart and caring person taught me to be humble and a hard worker. While these are all desirable qualities, I would like to teach my kids to be passionate about things.

If you enjoy what you do, chances are that you will get good at it. Of course, you still need to work hard and be lucky to reach your goals, but it’s so much easier if you like what you do.

Don’t worry if you don’t know yet what to do with your life. Many interesting people I know don’t know either.

But I think it’s rewarding to know what you deeply care about and to work hard to accomplish your goals. Don’t let others discourage you and don’t be afraid of making mistakes, we all do.

Ideally, you will find something that is not only important to you, but that will also benefit other people. 


Professor Alain Cohn
Professor Alain Cohn

Professor Alain Cohn is assistant professor at the School of Information, University of Michigan. His main fields are behavioral, experimental and labor economics. His research focuses on the origins and consequences of social preferences and moral behavior. Cohn uses theories and methods from economics, social psychology, sociology and neuroscience. Much of his work is based on laboratory, field and online experiments, often involving non-standard subject pools such as financial professionals, millionaires and criminals. His studies have been published in top general science and economics journals, including Nature, American Economic Review and Review of Economics Studies. He conducted the famous research “Civic Honesty Around the Globe” and is the recipient of the Diligentia Prize for his work.


Photos: From the Archive of Professor Alain Cohn, Shutterstock

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