What is it about?

With increasing globalization, more and more people interact, trade, and travel across national borders. Until now, however, behavioral research has focused mainly on corruption within single countries. The new study examined corruption in a highly controlled, international context. As part of the study, more than 500 people from 18 countries participated online in a bribery game. They took on the roles of citizens and public officials. The citizens had to decide whether to buy a license through official channels or via offering a bribe to the public official. The officials could either accept or refuse the bribe. Bribery was mutually beneficial for the citizen and the public official – they earned more money in the study -- but it came to a cost for the society. Namely, every a bribe was offered and accepted, a donation to a globally operating NGO fighting climate change was reduced. In total, the citizens had to decide 18 times whether to bribe or not – once for each nation in the sample. They were then asked to estimate how likely it was that the officials would accept the bribe. If that estimate was largely correct, they were paid a bonus. In the next stage, participants decided whether they would accept bribes. It turns out that citizens from all nations offered more bribes to public officials from countries with a reputation for corruption. Indian officials, for example, were almost twice as likely to be offered bribes as Canadian ones. However, the participants tended to over- or underestimate the acceptance rates: For countries with a reputation for corruption, people overestimated how likely public officials were to accept bribes. At the same time, for nations with a reputation for being non-corrupt, citizens underestimated how often public officials accepted bribes . For example, on average, participants expected 42 percent of US citizens to accept bribes in their roles as public officials, while in fact, they accepted bribes 56 percent of the time. In contrast, for Russian public officials, the actual acceptance rate of 33 percent was significantly lower than the estimated 47 percent.

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Why is it important?

When people in different countries give or take bribes, it makes it really hard for the economy and people to grow in a good way that lasts. This can cause more people to die after things natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes, make animals and plants disappear faster, and make it harder for efforts to halt climate change. Corruption has been studied using bribery games in single nations, but not across nations so far. This is the first study to do just that: conduct experiments in which people could earn money based on their decisions across 18 nations.


"We need more awareness that even people from supposedly corruption-free cultures willingly offer bribes if they think their counterpart will accept them. So this is much more dynamic than the old assumption that some cultures are corrupt and others are not," adds Nils Köbis, corresponding author of the study and Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Human and Machines at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. He works on corruption, (un)ethical behaviour and social norms. "So education about such false stereotypes can contribute to corruption reduction. In other studies, we find that information about the non-corrupt behaviour of others can induce people to behave less corruptly themselves," Köbis continues.

Dr. Nils Christopher Kobis
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Forderung der Wissenschaften

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Conditional bribery: Insights from incentivized experiments across 18 nations, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2209731120.
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