Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Trust in a society is a kind of capital just like any other kind of economic asset, they say


Lies, damned lies, and statistics
by Ari Siletz

The fastest way to build trust and generosity in someone is to spike her nasal spray with a dose of the hormone oxytocin. But hurry to the point--money, promotion, sex, whatever it is you can't get without cheating; the drug degrades to half its strength in only three minutes.

The science article with this info coincidentally comes with a graph that suggests, among 29 nations, Iranians are the fourth least likely people to resort to this sort of deceitfulness. Norwegians stole the gold medal in trustworthiness, Denmark grabbed the silver, and if it hadn't been for the Chinese, Iranians would have come home with the bronze.

Intrigued, I went surfing and found data that I liked even better. According to a World Values Survey of no less than 88 nations, the top scores in the trust games were Denmark: 60.1. Sweden: 62.3, Norway: 63.9, Iran: 65.4! Whatever you do though, don't leave your nasal spray unattended in Brazil. They scored dead last in the survey with a score of 4.8. If honesty were soccer, Iran would clobber Brazil 13.6 to one.

But before we start the doodooridooing, it is fair to ask how the integrity score is calculated. Simple; the score is the percentage of the population sample in each country who say other people can be trusted. To make sure a high score doesn't indicate a nation of trusting fools, these numbers are checked against "wallet drop" tests. The two approaches correlate well. This means if you drop your wallet in Iran, there is a 65.4 percent chance it will be returned to you-or maybe it means if you drop a wallet with $100 in it, you'll get back $65.40; take your pick. [see note 2]

Iran's first place result was so astonishing that one study using the World Values Survey threw out the data for Iran altogether, citing some technical equivocation. I checked the authors expecting to find a list of Brazilian sore losers. Instead, there was only Dr. Christian Bjornskov of Danish nationality (fourth place). His paper "The Determinants of Trust" posits that trust in a society is a kind of capital just like any other kind of economic asset. This economist belongs to a school of thought that says high levels of trust in a country bring about social goodies like economic growth, rule of law, democracy, clean government, good education, and low crime. The IRI is sitting on the world's largest reserve of social capital, yet it is still waiting for prices to come down on democracy and law. This is why our glorious score was thrown out as suspect.

Yet Bjornskov objectivity is also suspect. According to his research many Muslims use the phrase "Inch' Allah" [sic] in their daily life. He concludes, "...which means that only contingent on a number of factors do people feel morally obliged to keep their promises. This God given uncertainty naturally could lead to lower trust in fellow citizens."

Most Iranian Muslims I know refrain from saying "Inch' Allah," or dare think it. A similar sounding phrase, often mumbled, advertises the speaker's belief in an entity that would dip him in molten lead if he doesn't return people's wallets. If the above Iranian mumbled things like, "110% absolutely," then I would know he is clueless about the melting point of lead, and would not trust him. Invoking the will of Allah is a trust builder, not a trustbuster. Otherwise the practice would not have survived to become a custom.

Bjornskov's reasoning is more at home in analyzing his native Nordic phrases. He notes that the old Viking saying, "a word is a word," is sometimes followed by "and a man is a man". This shows that, "...if a man was to break his word he would no longer qualify to be treated as such." Assuming every Danish male wants to be treated "as such," Bjornskov's predictor guarantees a minimum integrity score of 50% for his country. Presumably, the balance is contributed by Danish women who happen to be virtuous for unexplained reasons.

Before our dispute descends further into mother/sister name-callings, let me say I was actually touched by Bjornskov's chauvinistic appeal to "a word is a word, and a man is a man." Despite his low opinion of Islamic peoples, he seems familiar in a Viking way with the Iranian concept of looti gari. This makes me phrase my reaction to him in different terms: "Daashteem Pahlevoon? When did it become the rasm of the best and brightest of Vikingdom to spread misunderstandings in the name of social science?"

As for the misunderstanding about Brazilians, no amount of oxytocin is going to make me believe that communities can be different from each other by trust factors as high as 13.6. Here's what I propose to Brazil: we Iranians are often desperate for a good soccer coach, and you folks obviously need world class coaching in how to respond to surveys. Shall we shake hands on the deal, or would you trust a mustache hair as collateral?

Note 1
: The survey scores can be found in the appendix at the end of Bjornskov's paper, "The Determinants Of Trust," linked to in the above the article.

Note 2
:In paragraph 2 the technical term "correlate" is used with some artistic license. A 65.4% score in the survey doesn't necessarily mean a 65.4% score in the "wallet drop" test.


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Ari Siletz

Dear Christian

by Ari Siletz on

Thank you for your clarifications. I quite understand your reasons for excluding the data for Iran and China, and do not strongly take issue with your skeptism. In fact few Iranians wouldn't smell a rat in the Iran data. My use of the phrase "glorious results," the suggestion that Iran is waiting for prices to come down on democracy, and the recommendation that Iran should coach Brazil in how to respond to surveys, is as an acknowledgement of skepticism to the satirically inclined Iranian reader.


Clearly your analysis and conclusion depends only on the data and not on your interpretation of "Inch'Allah." However it reveals an underestimating of Islam's sophisticated mechanisms for social cohesion. And here's where I hope you will find my article useful. If social scientists in Europe had a less dismissive view of Islam , they would certainly have taken better measures to avoid the assimilation problems Europe now faces. The unwise immigration policies is water under the bridge, but its not too late--in fact it is more urgent now--for social scientists in all diciplines to become more familiar with Islam and its ways. In this spirit, here's a painless book of short fiction with insights into a Muslim culture. Since you graciously made your work available on the internet, I would be happy to send you a copy of this book if you provide me with your institution's address through my private website here. Regards, Ari






Interesting - and ultimately wrong

by Christian Bjørnskov (not verified) on

Dear Ari
It was interesting to see your piece on one of my published pieces of research on social trust. You strongly take issue with my scepticism of the official Iranian WVS trust score, which is fine by me. Every bit of unbiased information on countries far from my part of the earth is welcome. However, I would like to stress to you and the readers of your blog that my reluctance to include Iran (and China) in the sample of countries employed in my study is_not_ due to the potential effect of 'Inch'Allah* - as you seem to be indicating.
Instead, whatever you do with the association between trust and governance, education, corruption, you name it... China and Iran are major outliers! They simply don't fit the picture that you can rather easily draw by relying on information from the other 102 countries we know enough about. I am trying very hard not to be biased in any way, and have only included the bit on 'Inch'Allah' as one of several potential ways to explain the clearly lower trust levels typically found in Muslim societies. If you would care to read my studies, either the one you're referring to, which is in the July issue of the European Sociological Review, or one published last year in Public Choice, more carefully, you would probably see that there is an effect of having a large Muslim population. Exactly how you explain that, and exactly how you explain the way Iran just sticks our from the rest of the world in this line of research (I'm far from the only one finding this problem) is up to you. For my self, I'm trying to be as open-minded as possible while still offering some a priori reasonable explanations.


Great article

by Abarmard on

Enjoyed reading it. Interesting, Thanks.

Ari Siletz

Mehran from San Ramon:

by Ari Siletz on

zak found a 17% increase by one measure of trust and a doubling of trust by another measure. The metrics used and the experimental setup is explained fully in the Scientific American article. Also see M. Kosfeld et al in Nature Vol 435, pages 673-676. June 2 2005.

The technology to acuurately measure oxytocin in the blood is recent; this may account for the confilct with Wikipedia information which may be dated.

 Also, the commentary is not based on oxytocin research; it is based on the World Values Survey.


Dear Ari

by Mehran from San Ramon (not verified) on

and the result of Paul J. Zak's study was.....??

If positive, then obviously there is a conflict of results here.

....and if so, I have no interest in taking up the issue since I am not the one who used that argument to base an essay on!


Ari Siletz

Mehran from San Ramon:

by Ari Siletz on

Please take up the blood-brain barrier issue with professor Paul J. Zak of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

He says,"To study this issue, a research team from the University of Zurich headed by economist Ernst Fehr and me had about 200 male investors [subjects] breathe in a dose of oxytocin formulated as a nasal spray (enabling the drug to reach the brain) and compared their behavior with that of control subjects who inhaled a placebo."

Scientific American, June 2008 [current issue] page 92.

I would be grateful if you filled us in as to the result of your conversation.



by Mehran from San Ramon (not verified) on

"Oxytocin given intravenously does not enter the brain in significant quantities - it is excluded from the brain by the blood-brain barrier. There is no evidence for significant CNS entry of oxytocin by nasal spray."




doodooridoo-doodoo! IRAN!

by IRANdokht on

Nice one Ari,

smart, witty and totally patritotic: a pleasure to read, and great to know!

now after all those looti and pahlevoon comments, all I can say is: naazeh nafasset



Nazy Kaviani

What an interesting read!

by Nazy Kaviani on

What an interesting read! So, I'm always telling some other Iranians to stop calling our whole nation liars and pretenders and cheaters, because you simply can't generalize any nation like that, let alone your own! But, hey, even I didn't expect this outcome! This was a pleasant surprise.

Though it all sounds really good and sweet, Ari, I think I will save the results of this research for extreme cases of bigotry against Iranians (no doubt by other Iranians!), and not use it like I would use other references, say Cyrus' Cylinder (first delecration of human rights), or Molana's Iranian origin, or Persian Gulf's "Persian-ness." I would leave it to the Looti Danish to defend his own research findings!

Thanks for the diversion from all the gloom and doom of this hour.