Feb. 03, 2016

Why do successful and distinguished politicians become corrupt? Dr. Amos Schurr of the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business & Management and the Dec​ision Making and Economic Psychology Center DMEP at BGU and Prof. Ilana Ritov, of the School of Education, and The Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem hypothesized that there could be something in the social context according to which people measure success that promotes dishonesty 

Their study was just published in the prestigious PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America). 

Dr. Amos Schurr 

To test this hypothesis, they invited participants to the lab and let them participate in two ostensibly unrelated experiments. In the first, they let participants compete; in the second they let half the participants (winners and losers alike) throw two dice, and were told they could collect money in an amount corresponding to the number that came up on the dice, while the rest of the money was transferred to another participant who did not throw the dice. Because only those who threw the dice could see the outcome, they could steal money without being caught. If everyone is honest, the mean claim should be seven. If the mean is greater than seven, it’s a sign someone is cheating. Schurr and Ritov found that those who won the competition over claimed and practically stole money from a fellow student while those who lost did not. 

Follow up experiments showed that the effect holds only when beating other contestants. For example, when participants had to recall a personal achievement of achieving a set goal or actually meeting a fixed standard honesty prevails.  

These findings suggest that the way in which people measure success affects their honesty. When success is measured by social comparison, as is the case when winning a competition, dishonesty increases. When success does not involve social comparison, as is the case when meeting a fixed well defined standard or recalling a personal achievement, dishonesty decreases.   

The significance of this research is two-fold: First, honesty and dishonesty are essentially social decisions. Prior to this study, most research on ethicality revolved around personal decisions, while leaving the social context out. The current study contributes to research on ethicality by testing ethicality in a social context. Second, the methodology used to test the hypothesis is also novel and sheds new light on contestants’ ethicality after the competition ends. Although we know much about contestants’ behavior before and during competitions, we know little about contestants’ behavior after the competition has ended. A greater tendency toward unethicality on the part of winners, as our findings indicate, is likely to impede social mobility and equality. 

More in: The Washington PostScientific AmericanThe Daily Mail,  the Pacific Standard, Jerusalem Post​​​​