EXPERIMENT 1: The Price of a Bribe

Political corruption is all too common, and it takes a serious economic and social toll. Bribery, one of the most common forms of political corruption, has recently been the target of psychological research trying to understand what factors lead to bribery. One important question, however, remains unanswered: what does exposure to a bribe do to our moral behavior?


We tested this question in two studies. Our subjects came to the lab to play a game where they could cheat a little bit to earn more money. The max amount they could earn, though, depended on a coin flip—if they got heads, they could earn 10x as much as they would have earned if they got tails. When a subject got heads, we set them up and they played the game. If the subject got tails, though the experimenter offered them a bribe—they could switch the subject to the high-paying game in exchange for some money.


In our first study, when the bribe was cheap ($2), 86% of the subjects paid the bribe. That’s interesting enough, but they also cheated more on the game they played. We found that paying a bribe makes people behave more dishonestly. To test whether people act more immorally when they pay a bribe, or are merely being exposed to one, our second study included an expensive bribe ($12). Although 81% of the subjects refused to pay the bribe, they still cheated more on the game they played. Exposure to a bribe, whether accepted or not, can make people more dishonest. These results make political corruption all the more concerning—it seems that corruption not only degrades the moral character of those involved, but those exposed to it as well.