Are You More Likely to Offer a Bribe Based on Your Partner’s Nationality?

In a world where people increasingly interact and do business across borders, bribery remains a persistent problem. As much as we may like to think that our own personal values and ethics dictate our behavior, a recent study suggests that the national background of our partners may play a bigger role in whether or not we offer bribes.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Cologne, the University of Amsterdam, and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, involved a large-scale bribery game played by over 5,500 participants from 18 different countries. In the game, participants took on the roles of citizens and public officials and had to decide whether to buy a license through official channels or offer 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, as they earned more money in the study. However, it came at a cost for society, as every time a bribe was offered and accepted, a donation to a globally operating NGO fighting climate change was reduced.

The results of the study showed that citizens from all nations were more likely to offer bribes to public officials from countries with a reputation for corruption. For example, Indian officials were almost twice as likely to be offered bribes as Canadian ones. What’s interesting is that the participants tended to over- or underestimate the acceptance rates: for countries with a reputation for corruption, people overestimated how likely public officials were to accept bribes, while for nations with a reputation for being non-corrupt, citizens underestimated how often public officials accepted bribes.

This study highlights a common pattern in human behavior, in which people base their actions on personal biases and what they expect others to do.

Corruption Perception Indexes, Perpetuating Biases?

This study reminds us of the potential biases that could arise from corruption perception indexes, which are commonly used to measure the extent of corruption in different countries.

Corruption perception indexes often rely on surveys of “experts and businesspeople” to assess the degree of corruption in different countries. However, these perceptions may be influenced by preconceived notions and stereotypes about certain countries. These indexes, and notably Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), have been criticized for their subjectivity and lack of transparency, which may not reflect the actual corruption reality in a country, and can perpetuate corruption in several ways.

For example experts giving their corruption perception of a country may hold negative views of a country’s political or economic system and assume that corruption is widespread, even if that is not the case. This can result in an overestimation of the level of corruption in a country, which can damage its reputation and discourage investment in that country, or as the study suggests encourage the offering of a bribe since it is assumed the citizens of that country are very likely to be corrupt.

Conversely, CPIs may underestimate the level of corruption in countries that are perceived to be more stable or developed. This can result in complacency and a lack of action to address corruption in those countries, which can allow corrupt practices to continue unchecked.

Furthermore, CPIs often do not take into account the nuances and complexities of corruption in different countries. For example, corruption in some countries may be more overt and involve high-level officials, while in others it may be more subtle and involve low-level bureaucrats. CPIs may not be able to capture these differences, which can result in a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing corruption that may not be effective.

Another criticism of CPIs is that they can be manipulated by governments and other actors. Governments may take steps to improve their ranking on the index by cracking down on corruption in high-profile cases, even if corruption remains pervasive in other areas. This can create a false sense of progress and allow corruption to continue in other parts of the country.

Overall, the biases and limitations of CPIs can perpetuate corruption by creating inaccurate perceptions of the level of corruption in different countries. This can lead to a lack of action to address corruption or a misguided focus on areas where corruption may not be as prevalent. To overcome these biases, it is important to conduct due diligence on potential partners, assess the risk of bribery when doing business in certain countries, and use multiple sources of information to build a more accurate picture of the level of corruption in a given country.

This recent study suggests that efforts to overcome biases about certain nations could contribute to fighting corruption around the world. We are provided valuable insights into the psychology of bribery and corruption, and the role that cultural biases play in shaping our behavior. It reminds us that we need to be mindful of our own biases and assumptions, and work towards building a more transparent and ethical global community.

For compliance officers this study may also provide several important takeaways that can be used to inform your organization’s anti-bribery policies and procedures.

First and foremost, it is important to recognize that the decision to offer a bribe is not solely based on an individual’s nationality or the culture they come from. Instead, the nationality of one’s partner and the expectations it gives rise to have a greater influence on the offering of bribes. Therefore, compliance training and policies should emphasize the importance of conducting due diligence on potential partners and assessing the risk of bribery regardless of which country they come from.

Additionally, this study highlights the importance of addressing biases and stereotypes about certain countries and cultures when it comes to corruption. Compliance officers should work to educate employees about the limitations of corruption perception indexes and encourage them to avoid making assumptions based on them. Instead, organizations should focus on conducting their own risk assessments and taking steps to mitigate the risk of bribery.

I offer some thoughts in this earlier article on the importance of using alternatives to CPIs.

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