Case Study

The Price of a Bribe

Problem

Political corruption is all too common and it takes a serious economic and social toll. Psychological research has been trying to understand what factors lead to bribery, one of the most common forms of political corruption. What does exposure to a bribe do to one’s moral behavior?

Research

We tested this question in two studies. Our subjects came to the lab to play a game where they could cheat a little bit to earn more money. The maximum amount they could earn depended on a coin flip. If they got heads, they could earn 10 times as much as they would have earned if they got tails. When a subject got heads, they played the game. If the subject got tails, the experimenter offered them a bribe. They could switch the subject to the high-paying game in exchange for some money.

Results

In our first study, when the bribe was cheap ($2), 86% of the subjects paid the bribe. That’s interesting enough, but they also cheated more on the game they played. We found that paying a bribe makes people behave more dishonestly. To test whether people act more immorally when they pay a bribe, or are merely being exposed to one, our second study included an expensive bribe ($12). Although 81% of the subjects refused to pay the bribe, they still cheated more on the game they played.

Why it matters

Exposure to a bribe, whether accepted or not, can make people more dishonest. This makes political corruption all the more concerning. It seems that corruption not only degrades the moral character of those involved, but those exposed to it as well.