'Honest' Swedes as likely to fudge taxes as crafty Italians

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A new study suggests Italians and Swedes are just as likely to cheat on their taxes. Photo: Ken Teegardin/Flickr
10:14 CEST+02:00
Italians are often considered to be more dishonest than their northern European counterparts, due mostly to the country's high profile problems with corruption and tax evasion.

But new research published by the journal, Frontiers in Psychology, this month suggests Italians may have a raw deal when it comes to their 'cheating' reputation.

In order to arrive at this conclusion, researchers conducted an experiment during which they asked 311 Italians and 327 Swedes from across their respective countries to play a game.

During the game, each participant earned credits based on their performance but then had to pay a tax on their earnings, knowing there was a five percent chance that they could be caught and heavily penalized if they lied about how much credit they had accrued.

The results were surprising.

Researchers found that there was only a small difference in the level of evasion practiced by both nationalities – with both groups hiding on average more than 30 percent of their earnings.

The typical Swede reported 66.6 percent of their credits, the typical Italian, 63.1 percent.

"An analysis of the average compliance rate does not support prevailing national stereotypes that Swedes are more honest than Italians," the study reported.

So how is it then that tax dodgers cost Italy €122 billion in 2015, but cost the Swedish coffers just €5 billion in the same year?

"Under controlled conditions there's no significant difference between how honest Italians and Swedes are but, unfortunately, in real life the 'conditions' of the two countries are very different," Giulia Andrighetto, one of the study's authors, told The Local.

Andrighetto explained that in countries where institutions were generally efficient, like Sweden, instances of tax avoidance were much lower.

This is because people fear being caught out and prosecuted but is also due to the fact that they are more willing to pay, as they can see where their tax expenditure in going.

Essentially, Italians are more likely to evade taxes because of their inefficient public structures and not the other way around.

"The findings are important because they show that we can't just ignore tax evasion by saying 'oh that's just how Italians are'," added Andrighetto. "We need to change our public structures to combat the problem."

The study also revealed some curious differences in how Italians and Swedes cheat.

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Swedes were much more likely to either cheat seriously or not at all, whereas Italians showed a much greater propensity for 'fudging' their claims: cheating more habitually but with greater restraint.

Some 26 percent of Swedes were totally honest throughout the experiment, compared with just 15 percent of Italians. However, nine percent of all Swedes were completely dishonest, compared to just five percent of Italians.

Indeed, in Italy, cheating just a little is seen as culturally acceptable. If an Italian describes you as being 'furbo' -meaning cunning - it is almost always to be taken as a compliment.

"It's possible that Italians see cheating a little as an important way to get ahead, given the lack of faith they have in their public structures," Andrighetto explained.

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