“The time to guard against corruption and tyranny is before they shall have gotten hold of us.“

— Thomas Jefferson

Corruption may be an in-built feature of our brains. Some people are more corrupt than others, but when given the opportunity, many of us will choose an action that benefits us at a cost to somebody else. Athletes dope, bankers mislead, lovers cheat, and I’m sure the rest of us can recall a time we acted unfairly. I recently wrote about altruism and the pressures that produce it, but now it’s time to consider the flip side: how deep do the roots of corruption reach into our psyche?

Somebody somewhere is likely to be hurt by a corrupt action, so we can never doubt that honesty is the most ethical way forward. At the same time, corruption often requires instincts and behaviors that we view more fondly. As we have seen in many major news scandals over the past few years, when multiple people are involved in fraud or bribery, it takes a great deal of cooperation and mutual trust for them to pull it off.

So perhaps a social pressure to collaborate could lead us to corruption. In a study from June 2018, pairs of participants took turns to privately roll a die and let each other know the number they had rolled. The experiment was set up so that they would receive a monetary payoff when their numbers matched, and the payoff would be greater for rolling higher numbers. So there was an incentive for lying, and that incentive made a heck of a difference to participant’s behaviors.

Compared to what you’d expect from complete honesty, the pairs were 489% more likely to report rolling the same numbers. The responsibility of reporting a matching number fell with Player 2 because they had to react to the number called by Player 1. But Player 1 was certainly not being honest either, because they were inflating the numbers they reported to earn more money. The mean number you would expect to roll after many attempts is 3.5 (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 divided by 6). Player 1’s mean was significantly higher than this at 5.02. So in contributing to the corrupt cooperation, Player 1 was calling higher numbers, and Player 2 was calling more matches. In other words, both players were most certainly cheating.

In a way, there is something quite sweet about this joint and blatant cheating. The participants did not know each other or speak to each other; their only communication was through the numbers they were rolling and reporting on a computer while they sat in their individual cubicles. And yet, in the context of this game for which they were arbitrarily paired together, they began to cooperate successfully. Humans are social creatures, and cooperation is in our DNA, even when it means cheating together.

Another more recent academic paper took this experiment to the next level. The researchers kept the die-rolling task but introduced an element of choice in which members of each participant pair could choose to change their partner. This allowed the researchers to check whether corrupt participants were more likely to look for a corrupt partner in crime in order to maximize their earnings.

The most stable pairs of participants — the ones who were least likely to switch partners — were the ones composed of two liars: Player 1 asked to switch only 1.4% of the time while Player 2 asked to switch 5.6% of the time. In contrast, when paired with an honest Player 2, a dishonest Player 1 would request to switch partners a whopping 40% of the time. Similarly, a dishonest Player 2 would request to switch almost 50% of the time when paired with an honest Player 1.

But what did the honest players do? An honest Player 2 switched partners at approximately the same rate for honest and dishonest partners. But an honest Player 1 showed a rather different pattern: they were far more likely to request a switch when paired with an honest partner than a dishonest partner. In fact, they enjoyed playing with a corrupt Player 2 so much that the more matches a dishonest partner called, the more likely that Player 1 was to stick with them.

The difference in decisions between an honest Player 1 and an honest Player 2 is likely to be driven by payoff differences. Player 1 has far more money to gain from a dishonest partner than Player 2, because Player 2 can only react to the number being put on the table. So the temptation to keep a corrupt partner and get rid of an honest partner is simply greater for Player 1. But regardless of the total extent of the corruption, honest players overall did not search for honest partners in the same way that dishonest players searched for dishonest partners.

The authors of the research paper gave the honest but corruptible players the label of “ethical free riders”. Those players have a strong enough moral compass to avoid lying themselves, but not sufficiently strong to prevent them from participating in a dishonest partner’s corruption. They enjoy the benefits that come from the partner’s lies too much. Perhaps they more closely resemble hypocrites than liars, another sad quality to which all of us are susceptible.

* * *

“Time indeed changes manners and notions, and so far we must expect institutions to bend to them. But time produces also corruption of principles, and against this it is the duty of good citizens to be ever on the watch.”

— Thomas Jefferson

The results of the studies above probably support what many of us already suspected. Angels are rare on Earth, and we all surrender to minor sins occasionally. In fact, temptations to cheat can sometimes come from the more noble parts of our personalities. We are driven to cooperate and we are motivated to make progress in life, and these pressures can occasionally shift our scales toward corruption rather than honesty.

At the same time, basic instincts, thoughts, and interventions can push us away from corruption too. As one of my previous articles explains, we are actually quite good at detecting corruption in other people’s faces. And generally speaking, we may be less convinced by temptations when fully aware of the costs and consequences of our behavior, like who we might be hurting and how we might get caught.

Often, better information is sufficient to help us in making a more ethical decision. A research trial published in June 2018 examined whether basic text message communications about government budget irregularities would sway voting behavior during the 2016 Ugandan district elections. When messages conveyed more budget irregularities than expected, recipients reported voting for the incumbent officials less often. And when fewer irregularities were reported, votes for incumbents increased.

If text messages can help to curb corruption, then there must be plenty more we can do. Of course, it may also raise our levels of concern for biased news and outright dishonest information circulating around our online networks. It’s easy for us to get lost in media bubbles and political partisanship when we are trying to vote in ways that truly benefit us.

Elements of corruption will likely remain in our politics, our media, and our ordinary life for a long time yet. In many parts of the world, we have succeeded in crafting less corrupt systems over time, and we will continue to do so. We still have much to learn about how corruption emerges and develops. For example, the slippery slope metaphor that suggests corruption gradually gets more extreme as we engage in increasingly dishonest behaviors may not tell the full story. Some evidence suggests exactly the opposite: we are often more likely to impulsively corrupt our behavior when we come across a sudden opportunity.

While acknowledging our immense progress in building safer and more honorable societies to live in, we should take nothing for granted. We are still only human after all. Plenty can go wrong, and we should make every effort to stamp out corruption in our own behavior and disincentivize it in others. Whether we are being honest or dishonest, we are all tempted by the thought of jumping on a corrupt bandwagon when the rewards are staring us in the face. But we would be right to remain optimistic about the better angels of our nature.