Greed, not the willingness to return the favor, is the main reason people give in to bribery, according to new research.
The research also finds, however, that there are times when people can ignore the pay and lessen the effects of a bribe.
The study indicates that when incentives depend on choices, people accept and reward bribes. On the other hand, when bribes are not contingent on delivering a certain outcome, they don’t distort judgment nearly as much.
Tipping the scales
In the experiment, pairs of participants wrote original jokes and submitted them to a judge, who had to decide which pun was the funniest. Joke-tellers could blindly submit bribes up to $5.
When judges were allowed to keep only one bribe, nearly 90 percent of them chose the joke that came with the most money. The better joke (as determined by independent evaluators) was selected just 60 percent of the time.
“It’s more difficult to justify your own dishonesty once you’ve already made a decision before receiving a bribe.”
“Quality was basically ignored when the person could pocket the winner’s bribe,” says Silvia Saccardo, an assistant professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University who led the study. “Nearly every person went with the money.”
The results were different when the judges could keep both bribes. They selected the better joke 84 percent of the time. In fact, they overwhelmingly chose the person who wrote the funnier joke even when they offered the lower bribe.
“When the referees’ payoff didn’t depend on the choice of winner, bribery didn’t distort judgment,” says Saccardo, a faculty member in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “And because they sided with quality instead of a higher payoff, it’s an indication that in our data reciprocity isn’t a driving factor when it comes to bribes.”
Weighing on the mind
The researchers created one final scenario in the study that provided a clue that people can overcome greed.
Rather than allowing participants to bribe the judge when they submitted their jokes, joke-tellers had to wait two minutes. The extra time allowed the judges to objectively read and evaluate the submissions before seeing any money. They could keep only the winner’s money; they chose the better joke 81 percent of the time.
The World Bank estimates nearly $1 billion exchanges hands in bribes every year.
“When a bribe arrives before you have time to make an unbiased decision, you ‘conveniently’ convince yourself that a subpar proposal is actually the best one,” Saccardo says. “It’s more difficult to justify your own dishonesty once you’ve already made a decision before receiving a bribe.”
The researchers replicated the main conditions of the study at a market in India using a taste-test. The results were consistent.
The World Bank estimates nearly $1 billion exchanges hands in bribes every year. By learning more about the ways bribery affects our behavior and moral judgment, the researchers hope to identify ways to minimize its effect.
“Our results suggest that policy interventions that focus on increasing the moral costs of distortion and limit the scope for self-serving biases may provide a successful way to reduce the effectiveness of bribes,” Saccardo says. “An example is requiring evaluators to follow objective evaluation criteria.”
The study appears in the Journal of the European Economic Association. Additional researchers from the University of California, San Diego and WZB Berlin Social Science Center contributed to the research.
Source: Carnegie Mellon University