Tag: Corruption

The Social Instinct, by Nichola Raihani

The pandemic has been a stark reminder of just how much we rely on one another. Like plagues of the past, the novel coronavirus has exploited our social nature. But our sociality is also our Get Out of Jail Free card.

Billions of people complying with strict lockdowns and the race to roll-out COVID-19 vaccines in record time are examples of our extraordinary ability to cooperate. This begs the question: why do we cooperate with each other in the first place?

In her new book The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World, Nichola Raihani claims that this may be the most pressing scientific question of our time. To get to the bottom of this, Raihani takes us on an intellectual journey, chronicling some of planet Earth’s most successful social species.

The ‘we’ in ‘me’

Nichola Raihani is a professor of psychology at University College London, who actually trained as a zoologist (making her a rare breed of psychologist). Unearthing exactly what humans do and do not have in common with other animals has been the mainstay of Raihani’s scientific career.

Whether it’s the Taj Mahal or the International Space Station, staggering feats of human cooperation are clear for all of us to see. “Every human achievement we can think of, from the trifling to the truly magnificent, relies on cooperation”, Raihani writes. “From the most mundane of activities, like a morning commute, to our most tremendous achievements, such as sending rockets into space. Cooperation is our species’ superpower.”

Invisible to the naked eye is the vast array of cooperation that takes place at microscopic levels, even under our own skin. In The Social Instinct, Raihani reminds us that we are multicellular organisms, composed of trillions of cells working around the clock to keep us alive and kicking.

To let this sink in, Raihani invites us to look in the mirror and see ourselves as a Russian doll.

You are you on the outside, but this external appearance isn’t all there is. If you prise the outer shell open, you’ll find another version of you looking inside, which itself contains another version and another within. You are simultaneously an individual and a collective. Your body is made up of trillions of cells- around 37.2 trillion to be precise. For perspective that’s more than 5,000 times the number of people on earth. Most cell types contain forty-six chromosomes and each of these accommodates genes, ranging in number from a few hundred to many thousands.

From this perspective, Raihani argues that the most pivotal moments in human history were not the dawn of agriculture or the invention of the wheel. Rather, they were a coalescing of chance events millions of years ago that led to our multicellular existence.

This expansionist view of cooperation explains many wonders of the natural world, including how social insects appear to morph into superorganisms. Like separate parts of a car, the vast array of roles social insects play only really makes sense when we understand the overarching ‘vehicle’, which in this case is the insect’s colony. According to Raihani, social insects’ colonies mirror our multicellular bodies, where the Queen is akin to egg-producing ovaries, and the sterile workers resemble cells in our bodies responsible for general maintenance and repair.

Worker bees working hard. On hot days, some workers are tasked with collecting water and spraying it over combs to cool the hive down. Photo credit: London Economic Times.

Some public intellectuals also describe human societies as a form of superorganism, arguing that our ‘hive-like’ civilisations are the products of evolutionary forces clashing at higher levels of organisation. Despite the parallels, Raihani pours cold water on the idea that human groups resemble insect colonies. To make her case, Raihani draws lessons from everyone’s favourite business TV show: The Apprentice.

There is a fundamental difference between groups that are formed on the basis of high relatedness, and those whose members interests only align because of happenstance… On The Apprentice, goodwill rapidly evaporates when contestants find themselves in the losing team. When there is no rival team to unite against, a contestant’s tenure in the competition depends on their ability to outmanoeuvre their teammates. A familiar pattern usually results: people swiftly turn on one another, erstwhile allies become vicious rivals. Insults fly around the room, as contestants tried to absolve themselves of blame while incriminating their useless colleagues. When between-group competition is no longer relevant, then competition within the group becomes much more apparent. 

Although Raihani casts doubt on natural selection acting on human groups, she seems to tacitly endorse a new variant of the theory called ‘cultural group selection’. After all, how did a hominid species that evolved for life in small groups go on to build chiefdoms, nation states and corporations?

Social living

Others see our humanity reflected in the faces of our primate cousins. Chimpanzees and bonobos are our closet living relatives on the evolutionary tree of life, where we share over 98% of our DNA with them. The similarities between us and these great apes are striking. That said, Raihani convincingly argues that comparing ourselves to these primates can only reveal so much about us. How come?

Most of the food early humans ate had to be hunted or gathered, which is essentially impossible to do alone. Therefore, our distant ancestors had to band together if they wanted to avoid starvation. Other primate species didn’t face this pressure. Gorillas essentially live in ‘giant salad bowls’, and chimpanzees mainly snack on fruits. Their ‘fast food’ meant these primates didn’t need to collaborate to survive, which narrowed their evolutionary strategy. In contrast, we humans had no choice but to cooperate not only to eat, but to teach each other critical life skills and to raise our helpless infants.

In The Social Instinct, Raihani details the rich social lives of animals she’s studied intimately, such as the cleaner fish that roam the Great Barrier Reef. Although the similarities between us and these exotic creatures may not appear obvious, we apparently have a surprising amount in common: world-class cooperation. These cleaner fish essentially operate underwater ‘hairdressers’, where male and female cleaners frequently do business together. Raihani and her colleagues have shown that if a female cleaner mistreats a client by biting them in no-go areas, their male partners will punish them. Despite male cleaners acting like domineering arseholes (they also cheat), Raihani argues this sort of behaviour resembles ‘third party punishment’ in humans, which is one of the building blocks of large-scale societies.

A bluestreak cleaner wrasse giving an oriental sweetlip the spar treatment. Photo Credit: Boris Pamikov / Shutterstock.

Although The Social Instinct is in many respects a celebration of cooperation, it’s evident that competition can also lead to good in the world. For example, Raihani and her colleague Sarah Smith trawled through Just Giving’s fundraising pages of people running the London Marathon, with the hunch that Charles Darwin’s grand theory of sexual selection may help explain why people bother donating to charity in the first place. They found that if an attractive woman had previously received a generous donation from a man, other men would subsequently try to outcompete one other by posting larger donations on her fundraising page (I know, shocking).

This is what evolutionary psychologists call ‘competitive altruism’, where people behave altruistically because of the benefits that come with flaunting one’s virtue. Raihani suggests these tournaments are the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail. But instead of showing off their physical prowess, these men are signalling their generosity (or rather, they’re flashing their stacks of cash).

The renegades within

Just as competition can be a force for good, cooperation also has a dark side. Where there is cooperation, cheaters and shirkers lurk in the shadows. At the microscopic level, this truism can help us understand the scourge of cancer. Cancers are essentially renegades within our multicellular bodies. They are cheating cells that ignore instructions, refuse to cooperate, and proliferate to the detriment of our health.

Seen from another angle however, cancerous cells are actually cooperating with one another. Although cancers disrupt their cellular societies, they band together to further their own selfish interests, however suicidal their mission may be. This reveals the paradox of cooperation etched in The Social Instinct. “Cooperation and competition are simply two sides of the same coin”, Raihani writes. “What looks like cooperation through one lens will often be felt as competition through another.”

Scientists are converging on this understanding of cooperation as a way to outcompete rival groups. Although this theoretical breakthrough enriches our understanding of cooperation, it also reveals an uncomfortable truth: if cooperation is a way to get ahead, then a corollary of this is that cooperation usually has victims. “In fact, cooperation without victims is the most difficult kind to achieve”.

This truth bomb helps us make sense of the corruption that plagues societies across the world. We can view corruption as a form of cooperation where the goodies go to our nearest and dearest, which subsequently undermines the integrity of our formal institutions. Preferentially hiring a member of your family for a job or greasing the palm of an executive to secure a lucrative contract are both cooperative acts, Raihani argues, as they both involve helping and trust. But of course, it is society at large that ends up footing the bill.   

As stated by Raihani:

If someone were to ask you whether it would be acceptable to lie in court to exonerate a family member, what would you say? What about if you were asked whether you had a moral duty to hire the best candidate for a job rather than a less qualified friend? Answers to these sorts of questions are neither straight forward nor universally endorsed, because cooperating at one scale is often traded off against cooperation at another. Our sense of what is moral or immoral depends on how we feel these competing interests ought to be balanced. To put it put this another way, one might mistrust someone who ‘always helps his friends’. But a similarly damning accusation can be levelled at someone who ‘doesn’t help their friends’.

Eric and Donald Trump campaigning in Ashburn, Virginia, August 2, 2016. “Nepotism is kind of a factor of life,” Eric Trump said during an interview with Forbes. Photo credit: Evan Vucci/ Shutterstock.

These different scales of cooperation also help explain the setbacks of the global vaccination programme. Few politicians would disagree with COVAX’s maxim that ‘no one is safe unless everyone is safe’. Yet rich countries have essentially gobbled up the globe’s supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, and are prioritising booster shots for their citizens over immunising the rest of the world. To put it another way, intense cooperation within their borders has come at the expense of poorer nations– which inadvertently prolongs the pandemic and makes all of us less safe.

This double-edged nature of cooperation, Raihani argues, is the essential ingredient and also the biggest threat to humanity’s success. “Our supreme commitment to cooperation is the key to solving the massive global problems we now face”, Raihani writes. “But it is our ability to cooperate that might also be our eventual downfall.”

Think global, act local

The human population will soon pass the 8 billion mark. This is an extraordinary achievement for a primate that is physically weak and not exceptionally bright either. Cooperation is undoubtedly a key element of our success, and Raihani credits our social instincts for our very existence. That said, our domination of planet Earth forces us to transcend our social instincts.

The problems humanity faces in the 21st century are daunting, and require greater global cooperation than has ever been mustered. Despite the chaos created by the novel coronavirus, Raihani states that pandemics are far from our only challenge. For example, global warming and the mass die-off of species are two devastating own goals that humanity has scored. And although the world’s nuclear stockpile has decreased dramatically since the peak of the Cold War, there are still enough nuclear weapons to blow ourselves to smithereens.

We have right to be concerned about the world our children will inherit. However, Raihani argues that we must not lose hope. Unlike any other creature on Earth, human ingenuity and adaptability allows us to work around the laws of nature and to crawl our way out of sticky social dilemmas. “We are not simply stuck with the games that nature gives us: we can change the rules.”

To overcome these seemingly insurmountable challenges, Raihani says we need to ‘think global and act local’. This catchphrase was coined by the late Elinor Ostrom, who challenged conventional economic thinking and proved that the ‘tragedy of the commons’ can be overcome with hybrid forms of governance. Acknowledging the magnitude of her contributions, Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.

There is almost a fairy-tale to be told about cooperation, Raihani concludes. “If used well it will deliver riches, but in the wrong hands or used in the wrong ways, it will bring ruin”. The decisions our leaders make over the coming decades will determine if this story has a happy-ending, or serves as a cautionary tale for future civilisations.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World is published by Penguin. Click here to buy a copy.

The Weirdest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich

Here’s an ethical dilemma for you to mull over:

You are riding in a car driven by a close friend. He hits a pedestrian. You know he was going at least 35 miles per hour in an area of the city where the maximum allowed speed is 20 miles per hour. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was driving only 20 miles per hour, it may save him from serious consequences.

If you found yourself boxed into this awkward situation, what right would you say your friend has in expecting you to protect him?

If you would refuse to testify and protect your friend, you are probably pretty WEIRD. That is, you most likely grew up in a country which is Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (lucky you).

If you’re WEIRD like me, you may be surprised to learn that of the corporate managers across the world who were presented with this ethical dilemma, a sizable proportion outside of Western countries said that they would lie under oath to protect their friend.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, being WEIRD makes you an outlier psychologically among the world’s diverse inhabitants of humans.

Compared to the rest of humanity, we Westerners are highly individualistic, self-centred, control oriented, and analytical. We tend to focus on ourselves— our unique characteristics, our achievements and our ambitions— rather than on our relationships with our family and friends.

Despite our rugged individualism and benign levels of narcissism, we WEIRDos tend to treat people fairly, and are unusually trusting of strangers. Similarly, we think nepotism and cronyism is wrong, and we forgo numerous opportunities to further our friend’s and family’s interests.

This raises the million-dollar question: how did we Westerners become so psychologically unique?

The Weirdest People in the World

In his new book The Weirdest People in the World, American anthropologist Joseph Henrich not only explores the psychology of ‘WEIRD’ people, but also excavates the origins of the modern world (a tall order, I know).

Joseph Henrich is Professor and Chair of Harvard University’s department of Evolutionary Biology, and is a champion of interdisciplinary science (Henrich initially trained as an aerospace engineer, and has held professorships in psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology). Henrich’s first popular science book, The Secret of Our Success, was an instant classic in the social sciences, where he convincingly made the case that culture is now the dominant force driving human evolution.

Ten years ago, Joe and his colleagues Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan penned a scientific paper with the same title of his new book. Their paper served as reality check for psychologists (ironic indeed), where Henrich and his colleagues lamented the lack of diversity among psychological studies. To elaborate, they criticised psychologists for making sweeping generalisations about human psychology, when their research actually narrowly focused on a thin slice of humanity— WEIRD people (more specifically, WEIRD university students). Having trawled through the literature, they discovered that over 96% of participants in psychological experiments were WEIRD.

Although this publication made waves across the world of behavioural science, Henrich admits that he wasn’t entirely satisfied with their paper. “I’ve always found it unsatisfying, because it doesn’t explain anything. How can we account for all this psychological variation?”. In the aftermath of their publication, explaining the existence of these broad psychological differences monopolised Henrich’s thinking.

Joseph Henrich demonstrates proper posture at Harvard Museum’s Evolution gallery (Image credit: Kris Snibbe)

So, what does explain Westerners’ unique psychological profile? The surprising conclusion that Henrich and his collaborators have reached is that these psychological differences can be traced back to the Catholic Church.

The Holy Scriptures

In The Weirdest People in the World, Henrich argues that around 1,500 years ago, the medieval Catholic Church (the branch of Christianity that would become the Western Church) began promoting a particular set of prohibitions and prescriptions about marriage and the family, which inadvertently altered people’s psychology.

It’s well known that outlawing polygyny— a form of polygamy where a man has multiple wives— helps keep the worst aspects of our nature at bay (monogamy insures against armies of incels inciting violent uprisings). However, counterintuitively, Henrich argues one of the most impactful of the Church’s prohibitions was the banning of cousin marriage. Why was this practice so impactful? Because the banning of cousin marriage (along with the Church’s overzealous imposition of incest-taboos more generally) effectively dissolved the densely interconnected clans and kindreds that roamed Western Europe. Consequently, these clans were shredded into small and independent nuclear families.

Why would the nuclear family structure fundamentally alter our psychology? Henrich’s central claim is that the Catholic Church’s ‘Marriage and Family Plan’ effectively dismantled tribes and clans in Western Europe, which relied heavily on arranged marriages to cement political ties (think of the prolonged political wrangling that takes place in the make-believe world of Game of Thrones— let alone all the incest). These social arrangements forced people to venture outside of their closed-knit communities to find their lovers to be, rather than fulfilling their obligations and duties to their extended families (which were largely assigned at birth). This incentivised people to build their own social circles and to cultivate traits that other people would find valuable and attractive (as they had to compete in the market of affection).

The impact of these practices on Westerners’ lives cannot be overstated. Henrich spells out what this meant for day-to-day living:

In most WEIRD societies, you can’t marry your stepson, take multiple spouses, or arrange the marriage of your teenage daughter to your business partner. Similarly, you could tell your son that he must move into your house after he gets married, but he and his wife may have other ideas when you have little leverage. You are compelled by custom in law to build relationships by other means and to depend on impersonal markets, governments, and other formal institutions (e.g. to provide safety nets for injuries, disasters, and unemployment).

Henrich argues that these curbs enforced by the Catholic Church got the ball of individualism rolling, which subsequently sparked a chain of large-scale societal changes— sprouting the seeds of impartial institutions such as guilds, universities and businesses. By the high Middle Ages, catalysed by the Catholic Church’s social cauldron, Henrich argues that these newly formed WEIRD ways of thinking and feeling propelled novel forms of government, whilst also accelerating innovation and the emergence of science. These self-reinforcing forces thus fuelled the rise of capitalism and liberal democracy.

If Henrich’s thesis is correct, then the Catholic Church ironically created the fertile conditions necessary for the scientific Enlightenment. However, Henrich stresses that the rise of Western societies over the last 500 years was not inevitable, nor that anyone would necessarily have predicted it beforehand. To put it bluntly, the idea that a bunch of barbarians in Europe would later amass great wealth and expand across all corners of the globe would have been inconceivable.  

As stated by Henrich:

If a team of alien anthropologists had surveyed humanity from orbit in 1000 CE, or even 1200 CE, they would never have guessed that European populations would dominate the globe during the second half of the Millennium. Instead, they would probably have bet on China or the Islamic world.

Henrich continues:

What these aliens would have missed from their orbital perch was the quiet fermentation of a new psychology during the Middle Ages in some European communities. This evolving proto-WEIRD psychology gradually laid the groundwork for the rise of impersonal markets, urbanisation, constitutional governments, democratic politics, individualistic religions, scientific societies, and relentless innovation. In short, these psychological shifts fertilise the soil for the seeds of the modern world.

The Weirdest People in the World is peppered with evidence of the lingering effects of Catholicism and Protestantism on Western minds. For example, Henrich shows that when a country received their first ‘dose’ of the Catholic Church’s family plan predicts how much their inhabitants currently respect tradition, trust strangers, and how ‘tight’ they are culturally. Remarkably, when countries were first exposed to the Western Church also predicts their rates of voluntary blood donations, and also the amount of unpaid parking tickets that UN Diplomats clock up during their time in New York City.

A busy map, detailing Church exposure and ‘kinship intensity’ across the world (Schulz et al, 2019)

One knee jerk criticism of Henrich’s theory is that the prevalence of Catholicism varies across the Western world, and also within Western countries. However, this is actually one of the most convincing pieces of evidence in favour of his thesis. For example, Henrich points out that provinces in Italy which have the lowest rates of cousin marriage (which serves as a proxy for Catholicism) donate much more blood on a voluntary basis.

The prevalence of first cousin marriage across 93 Italian provinces, and the frequency of blood donations (Henrich, 2020)

Henrich stacks several layers of evidence to make his arguments watertight, ruling out alternative explanations for the impact of the Western Church on people’s sense of trust, fairness and ‘impersonal prosociality’ (Henrich controls for factors including wealth, ecology, climate, and geography). Evidently, Henrich knows he’s going to be dragged into a fight— and he has covered all bases accordingly.

Rewriting history

With the passing of time, it’s inevitable that scholars will poke holes in Henrich’s writings (appreciating the inter-disciplinary nature of Henrich’s research). For example, evolutionary anthropologist William Buckner has questioned Henrich’s portrayal of polygyny in traditional societies, raising doubts regarding how much ‘choice’ women really have in such arrangements.

One scathing review of The Weirdest People in the World implied that Henrich has trivialised the scale of suffering inflicted by colonialism. However, this criticism doesn’t seem fair. Henrich clearly acknowledges the “very real and pervasive horrors of slavery, racism, plunder and genocide”. Rather, henrich explores the trajectories cultural evolution has taken and its enduring impact on our psychology, long after such horrors took place.

Personally, I’m still trying to wrap my head around how Stoicism fits into Henrich’s grand narrative. What do I mean? Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics which flourished in Ancient Greece and Rome, and the Stoics’ meditations on impartial justice and rational thinking strikes me as pretty WEIRD (from a modern interpretation of the philosophy at least). Yet, Stoicism actually predates Christianity by at least 300 years.

These points aside, I’m confident the critiques that’ll continue to come Henrich’s way will resemble minor quibbles, rather than challenges that threaten to tear down the walls of the theoretical edifice.

In summary, The Weirdest People in the World is dazzling in its breadth, along with its broad sweeping implications. When I reviewed Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success, I described it as a “a tour-de-force and a significant advancement of social science”. I’d confidently state that Henrich has once again raised the bar; this book is a landmark in social thought.

By chasing the ghosts of the medieval Catholic Church, Henrich has essentially rewritten the story of modern history. Indeed, Henrich illuminates the value of approaching history from a cultural-evolutionary perspective, and builds on recent efforts to make history a more quantitative and scientific discipline. To quote Henrich; “The cultural evolution of psychology is the dark matter that flows behind the scenes throughout history.”

Similarly, The Weirdest People in the World may well transform the field of psychology. Henrich and his colleagues began their intellectual journey by raising concerns about the overreliance on Western university students in psychology studies, and their efforts continue to influence the field. However, another lasting impact of Henrich’s contributions may be for psychology to be transformed into a historical science.  

Henrich’s research reveals the counterintuitive impacts of cultural practices enacted hundreds of years ago on our psychology (and even on our physiology). These are timeframes which psychologists rarely consider, and the field will probably be forced to dig a little deeper into history in light of these findings.

Globalisation and its discontents

Henrich’s theorising has clear implications for organisations whose ambitions span continents, including the inherent challenges of managing cultural differences. However, Henrich’s historical insights seem most relevant to aiding international development and efforts to curb corruption.

Henrich’s cultural-evolutionary perspective on modern history helps us understand how countries like Japan and China have managed to adapt rather quickly to a globalised world, whilst others including Iran and Iraq have struggled greatly (as large parts of the Islamic world still have intensive forms of kinship).

Evolutionary psychologists are fond of describing modern ailments as evolutionary mismatches (that is, heritable traits that were selected for in our ancestral past, which are now misaligned with the demands of the modern world). However, Henrich has identified a new strain of evolutionary mismatches: mismatched in our cultural-evolutionary psychology. In other words, a mismatch between societies’ culturally acquired customs and know-how, and the here-and-now.

What does this mean? To be frank, we can’t assume institutions that work in the Western world can just be lifted and dropped elsewhere— especially in regions where kinship ties remain strong. As stated by Henrich; “Modern formal institutions are now to a degree available “off the shelf”, though their performance depends on the cultural psychology of the populace.”

Protesters burn property in front of the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraq (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, 2019)

The following passage hammers the point home:

Many policy analysts can’t recognise these misfits because they implicitly assume psychological unity, or they figure that people’s psychology will shift to accommodate the new formal institutions. But, unless people’s kin-based institutions and religions are rewired from the grassroots, populations get stuck between “lower level” institutions like clans or segmentary lineages, pushing them in one set of psychological directions, and “higher level” institutions like democratic governments or impersonal organizations, pulling them in others: Am I loyal to my kinfolk over everything, or do I follow impersonal rules about impartial justice? Do I hire my brother-in-law or the best person for the job?

Henrich continues:

This approach helps us understand why ‘development’ (i.e. the adoption of WEIRD institutions) has been slower and more agonising in some parts of the world than in others… Rising participation in these impersonal institutions often means that the webs of social relationships, which had once ensconced, bound, and protected people, gradually dissolve under the acid of urbanisation, global markets, secular safety nets, and individualistic notions of success and security. Besides economic dislocation, people face the loss of meaning they derive from being a nexus in a broad network of relational connections that stretch back in time to their ancestors and ahead to their descendants.

Instead of pretending these cultural differences don’t exist, Henrich implores policy wonks to cater their strategies depending on community’s norms and practices. If social engineers are serious about improving the human condition, they must work with, or work around, such cultural-evolutionary mismatches. Just as importantly, Henrich invites social planners to consider how their interventions might alter people’s psychology centuries down the road.

The fathers who banned cousin marriage could not have fathomed the reverberations their actions would have across space and time. With a dizzying array of social changes, technological breakthroughs and environmental problems engulfing humanity in the 21st century, there will inevitably be profound and enduring changes seared into our collective psyches over the coming decades and centuries.

On the one hand, trying to predict the psychological impacts of these awesome forces would be wise, however fallible our forecasting is. On the other hand, Henrich illustrates the inherently unpredictable nature of cultural evolution– and the weird places it can take us to.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous is published by Allen Lane (£30). Click here to buy a copy.

Why anti-corruption strategies may backfire

One of the defining attributes of humans is that we are champion cooperators, surpassing levels of cooperation far beyond what is observed in other species across the animal kingdom. Understanding how cooperation is sustained, particularly in anonymous large-scale societies, remains a central question for both evolutionary scientists and policy makers.

Social scientists frequently use behavioural game theory to model cooperation in laboratory settings. These experiments suggest that ‘institutional punishment’ can be used to sustain cooperation in large groups- a set up analogous to the role governments play in wider society. In the real-world however, corruption can undermine the effectiveness of such institutions.

In July’s edition of the journal Nature Human Behaviour, Michael Muthukrishna and his colleagues Patrick Francois, Shayan Pourahmadi and Joe Henrich published an experimental study which rather cleverly incorporated corruption into a classic behavioural economic game.

Corruption worldwide remains widespread, unevenly distributed and costly. The authors cite estimates from the World Bank, stating US$1 trillion is paid in bribes alone each year. However, levels of corruption vary considerably across geographies. For example, estimates suggest that in Kenya 8 out of 10 interactions with public officials require a bribe. Conversely, indices suggest Denmark has the lowest level of corruption, and the average Dane may never pay a bribe in their lifetime.

Transparency International state that more than 6 billion people live in countries with a serious corruption problem. The costs of corruption range from reduced welfare programmes, to death from collapsed buildings. In other words, corruption can kill.

Michael Muthukrishna’s work suggests that corruption is largely inevitable due to our evolved psychological dispositions; the challenge is apparently to find the conditions where corruption and its detrimental impacts can be minimised. As Muthukrishna is quoted saying in an LSE press release for the paper:

Corruption is actually a form of cooperation rooted in our history, and easier to explain than a functioning, modern state. Modern states represent an unprecedented scale of cooperation that is always under threat by smaller scales of cooperation. What we call ‘corruption’ is a smaller scale of cooperation undermining a larger-scale.

Playing Bribes

What follows is an overview of the studies’ experimental design and results. If this is of little interest, I suggest skipping to the section titled ‘Backfire effect’.

To model corruption, the authors modified a behavioural economic game called the ‘institutional punishment game’. The participants were anonymous, and came from countries with varying levels of corruption. Overall, 274 participants took part in the study. The participants were provided with an endowment, which they could divide between themselves and a public pool. The public pool is multiplied by some amount and then divided equally among the players, regardless of their contributions.

The institutional punishment game is designed so that it is in every player’s self-interest to let others contribute to the public goods pool, whilst contributing nothing oneself. However, the gain for the group overall is highest if everybody contributes the maximum possible. Each round one group member is randomly assigned the leader, who can allocate punishments using taxes extracted from other players.

The ‘bribery game’ that Muthukrishna and his colleagues developed is the same as the basic game, except that each player had the ability to bribe the leader. Therefore, the leader could see both each players’ contributions to the public pool, and also the amount each player gave to them personally. The experimenters manipulated the ‘pool multiplier’ (a proxy for economic potential) and the ‘punishment multiplier’ (the power of the leader to punish).

For each player’s move, the leader could decide to do nothing, accept the bribe offered, or punish the player by taking away their points. Any points offered to the leader that he or she rejected were returned to the group member who made the offer. Group members could see only the leader’s actions towards them and their payoff, but not the leader’s actions towards other group members.

Compared to with the basic public goods game, the addition of bribes caused a large decrease in public good provisioning (a decline of 25%).

Leaders with a stronger punishment multiplier at their disposal (referred to as ‘strong leaders’) were approximately twice as likely to accept bribes and were three times less likely to do nothing (such as punish free-riders). As expected by the authors, more power led to more corrupt behaviour.

Having generated corruption, the authors introduced transparency to the bribery game. In the ‘partial transparency’ condition, group members could see not only the leader’s actions towards them, but also the leader’s own contributions to the public pool. However, they did not see the leader’s actions to other group members. In the ‘full transparency’ condition, information on each member and the leader’s subsequent actions was made fully available (that is, individual group members contributions to the pool, bribes offered to the leader, and the leader’s subsequent actions in each case).

Although the costs of bribery were seen in all contexts, the detrimental effects were most pronounced in the poor economic conditions.

The experiments demonstrated that corruption mitigation effectively increased contributions when leaders were strong or the economic potential was rich. When leaders were weak (that is, their punitive powers were low and economic potential was poor), the apparent corruption mitigation strategy of full transparency had no effect, and partial transparency actually further decreased contributions to levels lower than that of the standard bribery game.

Backfire effect

The study indicates that corruption mitigation strategies help in some contexts, but elsewhere may cause the situation to deteriorate and can therefore backfire. As stated by the authors; “[…] proposed panaceas, such as transparency, may actually be harmful in some contexts.”

The findings are not surprising from a social psychological perspective, and support a vast literature on the impacts of social norms on behaviour. Transparency and exposure to institutional corruption may enforce the norm that most people are engaging in corrupt behaviours, and that such behaviour is permissible (or that one needs to also engage in such dealings to succeed). Why partial transparency had a more detrimental impact than full transparency when leaders were weak is not made clear however.

Remarkably, the authors found that participants who had grown up in more corrupt countries were more willing to accept bribes. The most plausible explanation presented is that exposure to corruption whilst growing up led to these social norms being internalized, which manifested in these individuals’ behaviour during the experiments.

It’s important to note that this is only one experimental study looking into anti-corruption strategies, and that caution is required when extending these research findings to practice. As stated by the authors; “Laboratory work on the causes and cures of corruption must inform and be informed by real-world investigations of corruption from around the globe.”

This aside, the authors’ research challenges widely held assumptions about how best to reduce corruption, and may help explain why the ‘cures for corruption’ which may prove successful in rich nations may not work elsewhere. To paraphrase the late Louis Brandeis, ‘sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, yet this may depend on climatic conditions and the prevalence of pathogens’.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Click here to read to full paper.



Muthukrishna, M., Francois, P., Pourahmadi, S., & Henrich, J. (2017). Corrupting cooperation and how anti-corruption strategies may backfire. Nature Human Behaviour.

Milinski, M. (2017). Economics: Corruption made visible. Nature Human Behaviour.

When Less is Best (LSE, 2017); Available here

Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 (Transparency International, 2015); Available here 


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