Biases about bribery in certain countries facilitate corruption

Anti-corruption can start with education about stereotypes, an international study shows

In a large-scale bribery game, the participants took on the roles of citizens an
In a large-scale bribery game, the participants took on the roles of citizens and public officials. The results show that prejudices about corruption in certain countries lead people from countries with less corruption to pay bribes there as well. © Mohamed Hassan on Pixabay

For transnational bribery, the decision to offer bribes strongly depends on the national background of one’s partner. One’s own nationality, on the other hand, plays only a secondary role. This is shown by a large-scale experiment conducted by researchers from the University of Cologne, the University of Amsterdam and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

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, published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), examined corruption in a highly controlled, international context. As part of the main study, more than 5500 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 time 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. "Our study shows that the nationality of one’s interaction partner and the expectations it gives rise to has a greater influence on the offering of bribes than one’s own nationality," said Bernd Irlenbusch, Professor of Corporate Development and Business Ethics at the University of Cologne. He is a member of the ECONtribute Cluster of Excellence, which conducts research on markets at the intersection of economics, policy and society.

However, the participants tended to overor 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 to be non-corrupt citizens underestimated how often public officials accepted bribes. For example, on average, participants expected 42 per cent of US citizens to accept bribes in their roles as public officials, while in fact they accepted bribes 56 per cent of the times. In contrast, for Russian public officials, the actual acceptance rate of 33 per cent was significantly lower than the estimated 47 per cent.

The results show a pattern of human behavior: "People often base their behavior on what they expect others to do," Irlenbusch added. Efforts to overcome biases about certain nations could hence contribute to fighting corruption around the world, he concluded.

"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 behavior 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 behavior of others can induce people to behave less corruptly themselves," Köbis continues.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 120(18), Article e2209731120.