A number of studies have shown that seeing a peer behave unethically increases people's dishonesty in laboratory tests. What is much harder to investigate is how this kind of influence operates at a societal level. But that is exactly what behavioral economists Simon Gächter of the University of Nottingham in England and Jonathan Schulz of Yale University set out to do in a study published in March 2016 in Nature. Their findings suggest that corruption not only harms a nation's prosperity but also shapes the moral behavior of its citizens. The results have implications for interventions aimed at tackling corruption.I don't know - I suspect most populations, most places would be up for some kind of honest action against corruption. The fish rots from the head. It is the vested interests who benefit most directly from corruption and spread the infection through the whole system. If the leaders are cheaters, then everyone is, effectively, under pressure to cheat as well.
The researchers developed a measure of corruption by combining three widely used metrics that capture levels of political fraud, tax evasion and corruption in a given country. “We wanted to get a really broad index, including many different aspects of rule violations,” Schulz says. They then conducted an experiment involving 2,568 participants from 23 nations. Participants were asked to roll a die twice and report the outcome of only the first roll. They received a sum of money proportional to the number reported but got nothing for rolling a six. Nobody else saw the die, so participants were free to lie about the outcome.
If everyone were completely honest about their die rolls, the average claim would be 2.5, whereas if everyone were maximally dishonest, all claims would be 5. Participants from nations with a high prevalence of rule violations (PRV)—including Georgia, Tanzania, Guatemala and Kenya—tended to claim more than those from low-PRV countries—such as Austria, the U.K., the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany—and average claims correlated with PRV values. In other words, the more corrupt the country, the more its citizens inflated the number they reported. These values were calculated using data from 2003, and the experiments were conducted between 2011 and 2014 using participants whose average age was 21—too young to have personally influenced PRV ratings but old enough to have been influenced by social norms, implying that national corruption levels influenced participants' honesty, not vice versa.
The findings imply that highly corrupt countries may be difficult to change because their citizens have been shaped by norms that permit dishonesty. Yet there is also a positive practical implication. Rather than tackling corruption by targeting institutions, we might do better to aim at young people. “Changing formal institutions will be hard, but institutions rely on people,” Schulz says. “It will take a long time, but I think it's a worthwhile path.”
It seems to me like hoping to teach children not to cheat while all the examples around are cheaters is a fool's mission. Rooting out corruption is hard but there is little alternative to simply doing so.