Letter

Corrupting cooperation and how anti-corruption strategies may backfire

  • Nature Human Behaviour 1, Article number: 0138 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0138
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Abstract

Understanding how humans sustain cooperation in large, anonymous societies remains a central question of both theoretical and practical importance. In the laboratory, experimental behavioural research using tools like public goods games suggests that cooperation can be sustained by institutional punishment—analogous to governments, police forces and other institutions that sanction free-riders on behalf of individuals in large societies1,2,3. In the real world, however, corruption can undermine the effectiveness of these institutions4,5,6,7,8. Levels of corruption correlate with institutional, economic and cultural factors, but the causal directions of these relationships are difficult to determine5,6,8,​9,​10. Here, we experimentally model corruption by introducing the possibility of bribery. We investigate the effect of structural factors (a leader’s punitive power and economic potential), anti-corruption strategies (transparency and leader investment in the public good) and cultural background. The results reveal that (1) corruption possibilities cause a large (25%) decrease in public good provisioning, (2) empowering leaders decreases cooperative contributions (in direct opposition to typical institutional punishment results), (3) growing up in a more corrupt society predicts more acceptance of bribes and (4) anti-corruption strategies are effective under some conditions, but can further decrease public good provisioning when leaders are weak and the economic potential is poor. These results suggest that a more nuanced approach to corruption is needed and that proposed panaceas, such as transparency, may actually be harmful in some contexts.

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Acknowledgements

J.H. acknowledges support from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. J.H. and P.F. acknowledge support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Canada. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, London School of Economics and Political Science, London WC2A 2AE, UK.

    • Michael Muthukrishna
  2. Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA.

    • Michael Muthukrishna
    •  & Joseph Henrich
  3. Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1L4, Canada.

    • Patrick Francois
    •  & Joseph Henrich
  4. Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Toronto, Ontario M5G 1M1, Canada.

    • Patrick Francois
    •  & Joseph Henrich
  5. Department of Economics, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA.

    • Shayan Pourahmadi
  6. Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada.

    • Joseph Henrich

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Contributions

M.M., P.F., S.P. and J.H. developed the theory, designed the experiments and wrote the paper. M.M. and S.P. carried out the experiments. M.M., S.P. and J.H. conducted the statistical analyses.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael Muthukrishna.

Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Results, Supplementary Figures 1–20, Supplementary Tables 1–41, Supplementary References.