Corruption On Trial

Anyone of us can be corrupted, according to new laboratory research. But we go on believing that we are honest – fortunately: we sort of reinforce our sanity. Are we playing a perpetual social/psychological game?

From an evolutionary viewpoint, if most people are cheating and we do not, then we’ll benefit less and the chance of survival of our genes is minimal. On the other hand if we exhort others to be honest, while we become corrupt and dishonest – then our descendants will benefit most materially and be most successful. It would be a full-blown dishonest society. “I think of hypocrisy as a background state,” says psychologist Rob Kurzban in his book, ‘Why Everyone (else) is A Hypocrite’.

The laboratory experiment

At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Lausanne, Samuel Bendahan and colleagues are of the view that if most of us give the impression of being honest, it is because we have not had the opportunity to cheat, yet! His research work is based on a game. Have 2 groups of people, A and B; give A a real small sum of money, and they are to treat the B group as their employees and share the money with them. The choice is: either A shares more money with B, or breaks equal, or gives B less cash before going home (the ‘theft option’).

At the start of the game, only 4% of the players condone theft. When group B consists only of one employee, A rarely cheats; but as B employees increase in number they start to receive less money. A, the employers, take more, as they become more powerful, and start dealing in underhand tactics. After repeating the game 5 times, 20% of As are cheating. And if more ways to manipulate are made available to A, then by round 10 some 45% of these employers have turned dishonest, far from the initial 4%.

Jorris Lammers, from the Dutch Tilburg University, and Adam Galinsky of Chicago’s Northwestern University carried another experiment to demonstrate the corrupting influence of power. Two groups AA1 and BB1 were primed – AA1 were exposed to past experiences where they had felt powerful; BB1 to one where they had been powerless. Each group was split into half: A & A1, B & B1.

A and B were asked to judge some hypothetical acts on a moralistic scale, while A1 and B1 were asked to play dice games in isolated cubicles and report their results on a scale of 1 to 100; the higher the score the higher the rewards. It was found that the A individuals – the powerful — were more harsh than the Bs (the powerless) to condemn immoral acts and A1 reported their score in the dice game to be 70% (being a dice game, it should be around 50%), much more than B1; A1 were cheating. And worst, the A people were ready to judge the immoral acts as less blameworthy if they were involved – they became hypocrites. (Psychological Science – vol 21, p737).

Power corrupts…

More power does not only give more opportunities to deal in underhand cheating, but it also influences how we think. Lammers quoted the work of his colleagues from Erasmus university in Rotterdam. He talks of moral myopia – power, like alcohol, removes certain inhibitory pathways in a certain part of the brain; subjects being primed to feel powerful (while under brain scanning) have their disinhibition areas glowing with activity: they become ‘hyper confident, and hyper assertive’, just as after alcohol consumption (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal).

Just as we are ready to cheat if there are intermediaries, who keep us far from the underlings being corrupted (we sort of normalize the whole procedure: we feel comfortable to have someone else in the same boat to share responsibilities and potential punishment), so also psychological distance, just like power, triggers our corruption skill: we readily steal tokens to exchange for money rather than the money itself (Journal of Marketing Research).

Moreover, the habit of corruption dies hard; it is heavily influenced culturally. At Oxford, undergraduates from 43 different countries with a large range of CPI were asked to consider bribing some British officials to move up the hospital waiting list. Those who were ready to bribe come from countries with a low CPI, reflecting the culture at home. However, the researchers also discovered that the longer the latter stay in the UK, the less propensity they have to fall prey to corruption; and better still, their graduated compatriots – preparing for a PhD and spending as much time in the UK — were less influenced by the dishonest cultural influence back home (Barr and Senna – Journal of Public Economics). However, this manifests only in a minority of subjects or non-conformers – the people that may lead protest against corruption. There is hope that not all is lost for society.

That research, involving 300 students, could not point out which factor or characteristics could consistently pin down the corruptible or the incorruptible; even the individual with altruistic outlook and the initially honest person could fall prey to power and its negative influence. “A lot of dishonesty is about being dishonest while telling yourself a story why this is really ok” and… creative people are good at that!

Deterrents help

The only way to diminish cheating is to beef up the deterrents; to be held accountable for any suspicious dealings may incite us to refrain from cheating. Experimental work in the laboratory proves this point. In real life, ostracism, social disapproval and incarceration may serve as deterrents (5 British politicians were imprisoned for fiddling their expenses). Strong social mobilization, frequent auditing will help a lot, whereas grassroots measures do not succeed as expected. But anonymous complaints – whistle blowing? — would stir many workers and officials to better sense.

Finally, powerful people should be subjected to checks and counter-checks – approved and inculcated in democratic policies — says Bendahan, and his colleague, who suggest that those people must first recognize that they themselves are susceptible to corruption. In his memorable final speech Richard Nixon did say, “I am not a crook”, but he was (New Scientist – Nov 2011).

Those of us who believe in God, and think that He created us perfect and meant us for perpetual happiness do find it hard to understand our corrupted modern world; there is cause for pessimism, and reason to pray regularly. But for those who believe in biological evolution, who know that once our ancestors were ‘savages’ from the cave who have gradually learned down the ages to sit down and drink tea together, to discuss and invent airplanes or internet, who somehow have replaced their murderous impulse by some form of reason or kindness, and hypocrisy (or its euphemistic sister diplomacy) there is room for hope, greater progress, and altruism. It is as if evolution destined us to be egoist and corrupted, but by a twist of fate some “divine spark” is driving us into a different direction. It is a paradox that many intelligent people are hard to explain. And from this cognitive dissonance arises a lot of our trouble.

We are free to choose our camp, to be theist or atheist.

The bottom line is: It would appear that the first lesson we should all learn from the burgeoning field of corruption research is that nobody is immune!

*  Published in print edition on 19 June 2015

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