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At the roots of corruption: a behavioral ethics approach

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - Corruption Roots (At the roots of corruption: a behavioral ethics approach)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2020-08-31

For many years, human cooperation has been praised as beneficial in organizational and personal settings. Indeed, cooperation allows people to develop trust, build meaningful relationships, achieve mutually beneficial outcomes, and strengthen bonding with one's group members. However, while the benefits of cooperation are clear, very little is known about its possible negative aspects. Such negative aspects include the potential emergence of unethical conduct among cooperating partners, or as termed here – corrupt collaboration. Such joint unethical efforts, benefiting (directly or indirectly) one or more of the involved parties, occur in business, sports, and even academia. Corrupt collaboration emerges when one party bends ethical rules (here: lie) to set the stage for another party to further bend ethical rules and get the job done, that is, secure personal profit based on joint unethical acts. We propose that corrupt collaborations most commonly occur when all involved parties gain from the corrupt behavior. The current proposal is aimed at unfolding the roots and nature of corrupt collaborations; their existence, the psychological and biological processes underlying them, and the settings most likely to make corrupt collaboration emerge and spread. Accordingly, the information gathered in the current proposal has the potential to change the commonly held conceptions regarding the unidimensional – positive – nature of cooperation. It will help create a comprehensive understanding of cooperation and, specifically, when it should be encouraged or, alternatively, monitored. Objectives: The overarching aim of the proposed research is to unravel how corrupt collaboration evolves, spreads, and can be kept in check. Specifically, and building on the work described above, the current work seeks to: (1) identify which incentive structures (e.g. the relative profit gained by each of the cooperating parties) increase corrupt collaborations, (2) assess how corrupt collaboration may spread to unrelated people, (3) reveal how corrupt groups form when people select their interaction partners, (4) investigate how installing punishment and reward systems may decrease corrupt collaborations when enforced by external observers (e.g. auditors) but may paradoxically also increase it when enforced by one of the benefiting parties, and finally (5) assess corrupt collaboration outside the lab.
The project made several significant discoveries, contributed by summarizing existing knowledge using meta-analyses, and by writing opinion pieces. The key opinion pieces include views on how exposure to corruption can lead people to engage in corrupt behavior (Shalvi, 2016; Nature) and how financial temptation increase civic honesty (Shalvi, 2019; Science).

First, we found evidence for the collaborative roots of corruption (Weisel & Shalvi, 2015, PNAS). Specifically, cooperation is essential for completing tasks that individuals cannot accomplish alone. Whereas the benefits of cooperation are clear, little is known about its possible negative aspects. Introducing a novel sequential dyadic die-rolling paradigm, we show that collaborative settings provide fertile ground for the emergence of corruption. In the main experimental treatment the outcomes of the two players are perfectly aligned. Player A privately rolls a die, reports the result to player B, who then privately rolls and reports the result as well. Both players are paid the value of the reports if, and only if, they are identical (e.g. if both report 6, each earns €6). Because rolls are truly private, players can inflate their profit by misreporting the actual outcomes. Indeed, the proportion of reported doubles was 489% higher than the expected proportion assuming honesty, 48% higher than when individuals rolled and reported alone, and 96% higher than when lies only benefited the other player. Breaking the alignment in payoffs between player A and player B reduced the extent of brazen lying.

Our group continued to use the novel methodology to study how such corrupt collaboration emerges and spreads when people can choose their partners (Gross, Leib, Offerman, & Shalvi, 2018; Psychological Science). Participants were assigned a partner and could increase their payoff by coordinated lying. After several interactions, they were either free to choose whether to stay or switch partners, or forced to stay with (or switch) their partner. Results reveal both dishonest and honest people exploit the freedom to choose a partner. Dishonest people seek and find a partner that will also lie—a “partner in crime.” Honest people, by contrast, engage in ethical free-riding: they refrain from lying but also from leaving dishonest partners, taking advantage of their partners’ lies.

Second, in Köbis, Verschuere, Bereby-Meyer, Rand, and Shalvi (2019; Perspectives on Psychological Science) we tackled the question is self-serving lying intuitive? Or does honesty come naturally? Many experiments have manipulated reliance on intuition in behavioral-dishonesty tasks, with mixed results. We present two meta-analyses (with evidential value) testing whether an intuitive mind-set affects the proportion of liars (k = 73; n = 12,711) and the magnitude of lying (k = 50; n = 6,473). The results indicate that when dishonesty harms abstract others, promoting intuition causes more people to lie and people to lie more. However, when dishonesty inflicts harm on concrete others, promoting intuition has no significant effect on dishonesty (p > .63). We propose one potential explanation: The intuitive appeal of prosociality may cancel out the intuitive selfish appeal of dishonesty, suggesting that the social consequences of lying could be a promising key to the riddle of intuition’s role in honesty.

Finally, in Haran & Shalvi (2019; Journal of Experimental Psychology: General) we studied how receiving advice influences one’s honesty. Recipients of advice expect it to be both highly informed and honest. Suspecting either one of these attributes reduces the use of the advice. Five experiments tested the effect of the type of suspicion on advice taking. We find that recipients of advice discount it more severely when they suspect intentional bias than when they suspect unintentional error. We find the effect of suspicion on advice use stems from the different attributions of uncertainty associated with each type of suspicion. The results suggest people place an implicit premium on advisors’ honesty, and demonstrate the importance of establishing reputation for advisors’ success.
The main advancement beyond the state of the art is moving from studying honesty at the individual level, to studying it on the group level (Weisel & Shalvi, 2015). The novel methodology we introduced in the paper has been picked up by colleagues who started to use the dyadic die rolling task. We have recently summarized these results in a meta-study (Leib, Köbis, Soraperra, Weisel & Shalvi, 2020, under review). Results of this first meta-study (51,640 decisions, made by 3,264 participants, across 43 treatments) revealed reveal that in collaborative settings people lie substantially. They lie more when their partners lie; in later stages of the interaction; and when the financial temptation to lie is high.