Updated on October 10, 2018
In February 2014, the European Union published its first ever anti-corruption report. Over 41 pages, it concluded that bribery, tax evasion, cronyism, embezzlement, political fraud, and the like, cost the European economy 120 billion euros a year, just short of the EU’s annual budget. Corruption costs, clearly, but it deprives citizens of more than money. It’s also tied to a shortfall in honesty.
In a new study, Simon Gächter and Jonathan Schulz from the University of Nottingham asked volunteers from 23 countries to play the same simple game. The duo found that participants were more likely to bend the game’s rules for personal gain if they lived in more corrupt societies. “Corruption and fraud are things going on in the social environment all the time, and it’s plausible that it shapes people’s psychology, what they can get away with,” says Gächter. “It’s okay! Everybody does it around here.”
In other words, corruption corrupts.
Gächter has long been interested in honesty and how it manifests around the world. In 2008, he showed that students from 16 cities, from Riyadh to Boston, varied in how likely they were to punish cheaters in their midst, and how likely those cheaters were to then retaliate against their castigators. Both qualities were related to the values of the respective cities. Gächter found that the students were more likely to tolerate free-loaders and retaliate against do-gooders if they came from places whose citizens took a more relaxed view on tax evasion or fare-dodging, or had less trust in their courts and police.