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The importance of being honest

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Report. New research in Science measures our propensity for altruism. Although economists are increasingly realizing people’s basic honesty, economic policy makers have not given up their ideology of economic liberalism.

written by Andrea Capocci

June 25, 2019

Oscar Wilde’s comedy The Importance of Being Earnest tells a story about the advantages and disadvantages that come with being honest, or appearing to be so, in Victorian society. The play begins with the discovery of a cigarette case—which has been replaced by a wallet in the more recent stagings—and is centered around the loss and recovery of various bags, events through which the characters gradually reveal the more or less noble reasons that are guiding their behavior.

Although one cannot find any mention of it in the bibliography, an interesting study published in the latest edition of Science must have been inspired by Wilde’s play. The economists Alain Cohn, Michel André Maréchal, David Tannenbaum and Christian Lukas Zünd, from the universities of Utah, Michigan and Zurich, tried to measure the importance of being honest, and even altruistic, in daily life.

Altruism is one of the unresolved problems of the modern economy. According to Adam Smith, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” According to the dominant economic theory, selfishness is the fundamental impulse for human activity, and altruistic........

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