5 min read

It's notoriously difficult to gauge how often people are willing to offer someone a bribe to get what they want. A 2007 survey suggested that across a range of industrialised countries, two per cent of the public had experienced a request for a bribe from a public official. In a sample of developing countries, the average was much higher, at 18.9%.

The recent conviction in the UK of former employees of HBOS and external associates in a major bribery and fraud case – the total value of which is estimated to be between £300m and £1 billion – illustrates bribery is still a major problem, even if it is relatively rare. In 2015, 58 people were convicted of bribery-related offences in England and Wales.

The challenges of detecting, investigating and then successfully prosecuting such crimes, means that was comes to light in court will always be just the tip of the iceberg. This makes research into the extent to which people might be prepared to engage in corrupt acts rather eye-opening.

A recent study by Dutch psychologist Nils Kӧbis and his team, has shed more light on just how quickly people choose to commit a severely corrupt act when the option is open to them.

In the study, 86 students took part in four different simulations with different opportunities to offer a bribe. The researchers found that rather than following what some have called a "slippery slope" to corruption, the participants were more likely to pursue a steep cliff dive into it – moving straight to the corrupt act, rather than more gradually. The implications are that if presented with the opportunity, many people might be willing to engage in corrupt acts – and do so suddenly, rather than at the end of a gradual process.

The study is part of a growing field of research using students in laboratory conditions to simulate opportunities for unethical behaviour. It builds on previous extensive research led by Dan Ariely and his team on fraud and cheating, which found participants were more likely to dive straight into "steep cliff" corruption, rather than gradually build up to the corrupt act.

Laboratory research studies like these using students provide some welcome insights into what people are prepared to do and how they make their decisions in certain conditions. But it's important to not read too much into such studies. First and foremost, it is a simulation of a deviant act that arguably cannot be simulated.

Hard to simulate

A person confronted with an opportunity for corruption in real life is likely to consider a wide range of factors: is the reward enough, does it warrant the risk, will I get caught, if I do get caught what will the consequences be for my career and status in the community or among my peers? These pressures and influences simply cannot be simulated. Anyone who has participated in a research simulation knows that it is ultimately a game with relatively small amounts of money at stake, and no negative consequences for misbehaviour.

In my ongoing research, I have interviewed people convicted of taking bribes and it's difficult to imagine how the complexity of the situations they were faced with could be replicated. For example, one corrupt politician I interviewed was groomed for months by the bribe payer before succumbing to the enterprise. Such long-term sustained pressures cannot be replicated in an experiment.

The use of students in such studies is also restrictive as they are not representative of society. Even though many of them may go on to occupy positions in sectors where bribery is more likely, they would not have been socialised into the practices and pressures of the real world of work.

The other limitation with this particular study was that the "steep" bribery option was an invitation to a banquet and foreign trip. In the corporate world, such strategies could be construed as corporate hospitality and they are often used legitimately if configured appropriately. The results might have been different in the study if the steep bribe had unambiguously been offered as £25,000 payment into a secret Swiss bank account. It would perhaps have been interesting to see whether an example much closer to the student's real world would have led to similar effects – for instance, bribing an academic to pass a failed essay.

Risk vs reward

Such studies can never really replicate the risks of engaging in such behaviour. In the real world, there is a risk of capture and punishment, with significant consequences. In these simulations, participants know there is no such risk and that nothing bad will happen to them if they're caught.

But the results do highlight the importance of opportunity. In an environment where there is no risk, many participants are prepared to engage in unethical behaviour. The re-designation of bribery as "hospitality", with no serious sanctions at stake, makes this rather worrying. In the real world, people in certain sectors have ample opportunities to bribe and multiple excuses to rationalise the behaviour, such as "I was doing it abroad where it is normal", "It was for the benefit of my company", "I was told to do it by senior directors" or "It was only hospitality".

Detecting bribery normally requires a whistle blower to come forward or one of the parties involved to report the corruption. But studies like this suggest that there is likely to be a much larger problem of bribery beneath the surface than the detected statistics present. More effort is needed to prevent, detect and sanction those who engage in bribery. Particularly as this new study indicates so many of us are potentially corrupt.