Would you cheat on a test to get money? Would you steal from an envelope of cash if you thought nobody would notice? What if the person in charge implied that it was acceptable to lie and steal? That’s what Dan Ariely’s Corruption Experiment set out to discover. And here’s a spoiler: If you’re like the rest of the population, you would cheat and steal.
Ariely is a behavioral scientist who specializes in the depressingly bad conduct of humans. In this lecture clip, he details his Corruption Experiment. In it, participants are given a die, and told they can take home the numbers they throw in real dollars. The twist is that they can choose the number on the top or the bottom, and they only need to tell the person running the experiment after they throw. So, if the dice comes up with a one on top, they can claim that they picked the six on the bottom. Not surprisingly, most of the time, people picked the higher number.
Then Ariely adds a further layer. The participant tosses a coin at the start of the experiment to determine the maximum amount they can win: $4 or $40. Every participant loses the coin toss, only getting the $4 limit, but then the assistant tells them that because boss is away, and that if they give the assistant $3, the participant can be bumped to the $40 tier.
Ninety percent of participants opted to give a bribe, and after they did, they cheated more on the test than those who didn’t have a chance to give a bribe. Once we’re given the okay to break the rules, says Ariely, we go ahead and do it. Even more surprising is that, when told to pay themselves from an envelope containing $50, most of the participants took more than they had actually won in the first part of the test. That is, they also felt more comfortable stealing.
What does this mean? Ariely says that we behave according to social norms, and that normalizing corruption makes us much more likely to cheat. “If the person running the system is telling us that corruption or dishonesty or something is allowed, our understanding of what is acceptable changes instantly,” he says.
Of course, right now Ariely is talking about the Trump administration, and its abandonment of ethics and truth. When the people running the show say it’s alright to be corrupt, we are ourselves corrupted. That may explain why so many individual customs and border patrol employees refused to release travelers after Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the country, even once court orders from federal judges told them to do so.
Possibly the worst part, though, is that we would all cheat, given the chance. Along with everything else, a climate of creeping corruption is a danger to the moral fabric of the country.