You can take down the wall, but you can't erase it. Photographer: Gerard Malie/AFP/Getty Images
You can take down the wall, but you can't erase it. Photographer: Gerard Malie/AFP/Getty Images

Repressive political systems turn people into compulsive liars and crooks, and that legacy remains even after those systems are long gone, a recent study done in Berlin suggests. People growing up in market-based democracies are not necessarily naive, but when they come into contact with those of us born behind the Iron Curtain (or even to parents who hail from the former Eastern bloc), they are likely to encounter more duplicity and cunning than they're used to.

The study, conducted by Dan Ariely of Duke University and three collaborators, involved Germans collecting their mandatory ID cards in several citizen centers across Berlin. Among the subjects, 90 had an East German family background and 98 hailed from the West. It's been 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down, and 84 percent of these people told the experimenters they didn't see themselves as "Eastern" or "Western" -- just as Germans. What better indication that the scars have healed? You can hardly even tell former East Berlin streets from the ones that remained under Western control.

The Berliners were asked to play what seems an unnecessarily complicated game, rolling a die 40 times and deciding, before each roll, whether they favored the top or the bottom side of the die. After the roll, subjects were expected to record the number of dots on the chosen side. At the end of the game, the experimenter randomly picked a roll (by drawing a number from 1 to 40 from an envelope) and paid the subject one euro ($1.35) for every dot written down for that roll.

Variations of this game are often used to test for cheating. Subjects have a hard time figuring out what they're being tested on, and the opportunity to cheat is obvious: You just say you picked the side with the higher number of dots, or invent a roll altogether. A pattern of cheating, however, is also easy to detect: After 40 rolls, the real outcomes should align according to mathematical probability.

West Germans reported 55 percent high rolls, meaning they cheated a little. East Germans said they had rolled high 60 percent of the time. That means Easterners cheated twice as much as their Western compatriots.

"We interpret our findings as evidence that the political regime of socialism has a lasting impact on citizens' basic morality," the researchers wrote.

Claims of this kind have been made about capitalism, too, notably by German economists Armin Falk and Nora Szech last year. They showed that market interaction -- such as the opportunity to bid -- increased people's desire to get paid to kill a mouse: 46 percent of those offered 10 euros to kill a mouse declined. But when several players could submit bids, 76 percent would kill the mouse for money.

That, however, is a different experimental setup: Free markets may make people less humane, but repression and scarcity tends to make them less honest. In East Germany, where the Stasi secret police kept records on more than a third of the population, and stealing from one's workplace was often the only way to make a decent living, lying and cheating were vital skills.

The more exposure Ariely's subjects had had to communism, the more likely they were to overreport rolling high numbers: East Germans born after the Wall came down were 19 percent more likely to cheat than their "Wessi" counterparts. For those whose who had lived in the German Democratic Republic for 10 years that difference increased to 28 percent; for those with 20 years' experience of the East German brand of socialism, to 65 percent.

That doesn't mean Easterners are less generous or compassionate as a result. East Germans donated 72 percent of their winnings to a hospital when offered a chance to do so, and Westerners gave up 70 percent. People are fundamentally decent on a certain level, whatever the system that shaped them.

The enormous, and failed, social experiment than began in Russia in 1917 has left lasting traces in people's minds and everyday practices. That should be enough to immunize people against taking leftist or etatist ideas to the extreme, but the more time passes since the collapse of communism, the more nostalgic people are about it, as evidenced by Russian President Vladimir Putin's Soviet revival. It's important to remember that the damage that system did to people will take decades to repair.

To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.