One question for Nils Köbis, a social psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, where he is a senior research scientist at the Center for Humans and Machines studying corruption, ethical behavior, social norms, and artificial intelligence.

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Photo courtesy of Nils Köbis

When are we OK with getting bribed?

There used to be this assumption in the corruption literature that bribery might be somewhat of a stable personality trait: Some people might be willing to bribe and be corrupt, and others not. That was applied also to entire countries and cultures. People assumed that, in some countries, bribery just doesn’t happen. In our new study we show the opposite—that even people from countries that are considered to be relatively bribe- or corruption-free are quite willing to offer bribes when they are matched with people from countries that have a reputation for bribery. 

We recruited representative samples from 18 nations, and we basically put people in pairs and let them play a bribery game. One role is the “citizen,” and that citizen wants to get a license, like a driver’s license or a fishing license. The citizen can get this license in two ways: by an official payment, which costs more, or an unofficial payment. This reflects how a bribe is typically cheaper for you. The second player is a “public official,” who could decide whether to accept such a bribe. If the public official decides to accept a bribe, then both the public official and the citizen would be better off. It’s like in real life, where bribery is mutually beneficial for both parties involved. But also like in real life, there is a cost to society. 

Whenever a citizen and a public official would coordinate on bribery, we would deduct from a donation to a charity working against climate change. We let people from these 18 nations make the decision as a citizen and as a public official 18 times. So, for all of the different nations, they decided whether they would offer and accept a bribe. And these decisions were not just hypothetical—we actually paid them out, depending on their choices. If they decided to bribe, they could earn more money. 

People seem to act more on what they think is common, rather than what they think is acceptable and right.

We used the foreign bribery index that Transparency International compiled as a proxy for the reputation for bribery. They surveyed business experts from different countries engaged in international trade and asked them, “How likely is it when you are making any sort of deals with a person from Country X, that you would have to pay a bribe?” These experts expect that it’s very uncommon, for example, for Dutch business people to ask for bribes when they’re making international deals. Countries toward the bottom of this ranking were Russia and China.

We found that people’s behavior in our game corresponds quite closely to this index. Average citizens seem to have a certain view about bribery based on nationality. If you think about it from the perspective of the citizen, it actually makes sense to only offer bribes to people who you think would actually accept the bribes, right? In real life, it’s risky to offer a bribe to someone who might not accept it. So in a way, it makes sense to take nationality as a sort of proxy for estimating whether the bribe will be accepted. Even the “public officials,” in deciding whether to accept a bribe, also take the nationality of their counterpart into account. That’s interesting, because there’s no risk involved in our game to accept or reject the bribe. However, people in our experiment rather showed that they take the nationality of their counterpart into account. 

That speaks to an explanation that’s very popular in what’s called behavioral ethics—behavioral research on ethical behavior. It argues that people often want to justify their unethical behavior. And it could be that for people acting as public officials, it’s easier to justify accepting bribes when they’re offered by people from nations that have a reputation for bribery. Researchers call this justified ethicality: People often adhere to or break ethical rules to an extent that they can justify it, both to themselves, but also to others. We don’t have direct data to back it up, but I think it’s a plausible explanation that you feel like it’s more justifiable to accept a bribe if you consider that partner to come from a nation where this is common practice. It’s a bit of this notion of, like, when in Rome do as the Romans do. You can say, “Well, it’s not me. It’s my counterpart who’s offering the bribe, and I’m just going along with the customs.” 

There’s at least one pathway for interventions, something we’ve done in previous research. It illustrates how important beliefs are for bribery. We did a field study in South Africa where corruption is quite common. We looked at the most recent poll data and saw that over the last few years, bribery levels had decreased—people reported paying fewer bribes over the past few years. At the same time, however, people think that everybody else is as corrupt as ever. It’s a sort of paradox. On one hand, bribery levels are decreasing, but the beliefs about the behavior of others remains relatively stable. 

So in that study, in one town in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, we distributed posters that informed people that, actually, bribery levels are decreasing. Then we tested in a mobile lab whether after this intervention, people would also bribe less. Indeed, that’s what we found. Also, after the poster was up, people perceived bribery to be less common. And in one of these bribery games, they started to act less corrupt. People seem to act more on what they think is common, rather than what they think is acceptable and right. So maybe informing people that some countries might not be as corrupt as you think could reduce their willingness to bribe. 

After all, people can overestimate how corrupt other people are. For example, in our study, people thought that it’s very common for Russians to accept bribes. But bribery there was much lower than people believed it to be. So one way to reduce bribery might be to “fix” these wrong stereotypical views about some countries. On a collective level, we would do much better at understanding corruption if we look at the situational factors and the beliefs people have about how prevalent bribery is. There are many more people that are “conditionally corrupt.” They are doing it when they think other people are doing it.

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