In Box

Those Tricky Germans

A few too many years under the Deutsche Demokratische Republik can wreak havoc on a moral compass.

Illustration by Elias Stein for FP
Illustration by Elias Stein for FP

In many ways, life in communist East Germany rewarded the disobedient. While law-abiding citizens endured scarcity, their rule-breaking brethren reaped rewards from the black market. But with spies everywhere, engaging with the economic underground required deception, even the leading of double lives.

Turns out, this chicanery may have left an enduring mark: People who came from an East German background cheated twice as much as those who came from a West German background when playing a simple game in which a small sum of money was at stake, according to a recent study published by researchers at Duke University and the University of Munich. What’s more, the longer participants had lived under communism, the more likely they were to cheat.

The paper’s authors asked a random sample of more than 250 Germans from around Berlin to identify their family background (East or West) and then play a game in which they could win up to 6 euros. The rules were simple: roll a die 40 times and, before each roll, choose either the top or the bottom side of the die. Then write down the number of dots on the preselected side after the die lands. At the end of the game, participants would hand in their recorded numbers, and one of the rolls would be chosen at random. The payout would be 1 euro for every dot from that roll. More high rolls, then, meant a better shot at more money.

The catch? Participants weren’t asked to tell the researchers ahead of time whether they’d chosen the top or the bottom side of the die.

Had there been no cheating — switching sides depending on which one, top or bottom, in a given roll had a higher number of dots — the researchers would have expected to see a pattern in which low (1, 2, or 3) and high (4, 5, or 6) throws were distributed roughly 50-50. But this wasn’t what they found.

Rather, participants lied. West Germans, on average, turned in sheets on which high numbers were recorded in 55 percent of their rolls. Meanwhile, East Germans cheated even more, writing down high numbers for 60 percent of their tosses. A more glaring spread appeared when considering another variable: People who spent 20 or more years under communism were 65 percent more likely to report they’d selected the high side of the die compared with West Germans in the same age cohort; those who spent less than 10 years under communism were only 28 percent more likely to do so.

The paper, which suggests that living under communism may have made people more willing to deceive in order to gain, adds to a growing body of research that investigates the lingering psychological effects of the Iron Curtain. Other reports have indicated that East Germans are less trusting and less inclined to see others as fair.

Lars Hornuf, one of the study’s authors (who, as it happens, comes from an East German family), notes that the paper doesn’t explore complex questions: for instance, which precise facets of life pre-1989 may have contributed to moral degeneration, or whether East Germans would behave more honestly toward people with whom they already have relationships, as opposed to unknown researchers.

The paper, in short, does not make clear-cut claims about the ethical predilections of a wide swath of people. Still, should you be asked by a group of strangers in a Dresden bar to play poker, you might want to think twice.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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