National Corruption Breeds Personal Dishonesty

Simon Makin:

One bad apple spoils the barrel, so the saying goes. But what if the barrel itself is rotten?

A number of studies have shown that seeing a peer behave unethically increases people’s dishonesty in laboratory tests. What is much harder to investigate is how this kind of influence operates at a societal level. But that is exactly what behavioral economists Simon Gächter of the University of Nottingham in England and Jonathan Schulz of Yale University set out to do in a study published in March 2016 in Nature. Their findings suggest that corruption not only harms a nation’s prosperity but also shapes the moral behavior of its citizens. The results have implications for interventions aimed at tackling corruption.

The researchers developed a measure of corruption by combining three widely used metrics that capture levels of political fraud, tax evasion and corruption in a given country. “We wanted to get a really broad index, including many different aspects of rule violations,” Schulz says. They then conducted an experiment involving 2,568 participants from 23 nations. Participants were asked to roll a die twice and report the outcome of only the first roll. They received a sum of money proportional to the number reported but got nothing for rolling a six. Nobody else saw the die, so participants were free to lie about the outcome.