Nav: Home

When 'golden opportunity' to bribe arises, it's hard to pass up

January 24, 2017

The path to corrupt behavior may sometimes be a steep cliff instead of a slippery slope, according to new findings in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. In four studies, psychology researchers find that people are more likely to engage in bribery if it occurs as a sudden opportunity rather than as the result of a gradual process.

"Unethical behavior like corruption does not always emerge gradually but sometimes occurs abruptly, spontaneously, and unexpectedly," explains lead researcher Nils Köbis of VU Amsterdam. "Especially when the decisions appear in rapid succession, people might be reluctant to engage in corruption repeatedly and rather want to reap the benefits of larger forms of corruption in a single act."

"This is a surprising finding, given the strong intuitive and theoretical appeal of the slippery slope analogy," he adds.

The popular idea that unethical behavior tends to start small and build up over time falls in line with established psychological processes like moral disengagement and shifting social norms - the gradual progression from small, ambiguous acts to progressively larger transgressions may enable those involved to maintain the belief that they are moral, upstanding people.

But Köbis and VU colleagues Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Francesca Righetti, and Paul A. M. Van Lange wondered whether corrupt behavior might also emerge when people encounter what appears to be a "golden opportunity" - a unique circumstance that stands to convey large and immediate benefits and seems too good to pass up.

Corrupt behavior that happens once, in response to a sudden opportunity, may be easier to rationalize than repeated unethical behaviors, the researchers hypothesized.

Köbis and colleagues decided to put the two possible mechanisms to the test in a series of four studies.

In the first study, 86 student participants played a competitive game with five rounds. In each round, two competing players adopted the role of CEO of a construction company, with a budget of $50,000 each to make bids for a contract worth $120,000. A third player, the public official, awarded the contract to the highest bidder. If the bids were equal, the players split the award down the middle. In reality, only one of the competing players was actually a participant - the other competitor and the public official were represented by a computer program.

Importantly, the game was stacked such that participants had the opportunity to bribe the public official. In some cases, players were presented with a steep-cliff option: They could invite the public official on a private vacation that ensured their advantage in subsequent rounds. In other cases, players were presented with a slippery-slope option: They could invite the public official to a banquet, which ensured their advantage in a quarter of the subsequent bidding rounds, and they could later increase this advantage to 100% by inviting the official on vacation. The overall cost of both options were the same, only the path towards severe corruption differed.

The resulting data showed that people were much more likely to bribe when they were given the abrupt steep-cliff option than when they were given the gradual slippery-slope option.

Köbis and colleagues saw the same pattern of results in a second study that included a third bribery condition, in which the second corrupt act was less severe than the first.

To ensure that the game held some real-world incentives for the participants, the researchers conducted a third study in which players earned actual money in proportion to their winning bids. Again, people were much more likely to use the option to bribe the official when the bribe was immediate and severe than when the bribe was gradual.

A fourth study, with all players represented by participants and greater monetary incentives, showed similar results.

Importantly, in all four studies participants acknowledged the moral transgression involved in bribery. Participants consistently rated severe bribery as less moral than mild bribery and no bribery.

Together, these four studies indicate that severe unethical behavior doesn't necessarily emerge through a gradual process but can result from a sudden "golden opportunity." Although research examining the psychological mechanisms that drive corrupt behavior is still in its infancy, these findings and future work stand to provide important insight into a very real and consequential issue:

"Given that corruption has immense negative effects for society, in each country around the world, research that helps to understand when and how people engage in corruption can potentially yield crucial societal benefits," says Köbis. "With the help of more research on this topic and by enabling an exchange between practitioners and academics, in the future such situations could be identified and preventive measures could be designed."
N. C. Köbis is supported by a Research Talent Grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (Grant No. 406-12-003).

All data and materials have been made publicly available via Figshare. The complete Open Practices Disclosure can be found in the supplementary material. This article has received badges for Open Data and Open Materials (information about badges is available online).

For more information about this study, please contact: Nils Köbis at

The article abstract is available online:

The APS journal Psychological Science is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. For a copy of the article "The Road to Bribery and Corruption: Slippery Slope or Steep Cliff?" and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Anna Mikulak at 202-293-9300 or

Association for Psychological Science

Related Corruption Articles:

Mismanagment, not tampering, at root of supply problems for Ugandan farmers
For years, speculation about the poor quality of vital agricultural supplies in the African nation of Uganda has focused on questions of deliberate tampering with products -- adding rocks to bags of seed in order to charge more money for the heavier product, for instance.
Government integrity holds key to tackling corporate corruption -- study
Government leaders must set a good example to the business community if they want to eliminate corporate corruption, a new study reveals.
Overcoming weak governance will take decades with implications for climate adaptation
Governance in climate vulnerable countries will take decades to improve, substantially impeding the ability of nations to adapt to climate change and affecting billions of people globally, according to new research involving the University of East Anglia (UEA).
Improving governance is key for adaptive capacity
Governance in climate vulnerable countries will take decades to improve, substantially impeding the ability of nations to adapt to climate change and affecting billions of people globally, according to new research published in Nature Sustainability.
Catch-22 -- stricter border enforcement may increase agent corruption
Analysis of corruption cases among customs officers and Border Patrol agents reveals alarming trends depending on their years of service.
Corruption among India's factory inspectors makes labour regulation costly
New research shows that 'extortionary' corruption on the part of factory inspectors in India is helping to drive up the cost of the country's labour regulations to business.
Bribery linked with difficulty accessing healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa
In a large survey in sub-Saharan Africa, adults who said they had paid a bribe for healthcare in the past year were more than four times as likely to report difficulty in obtaining care than those who had not paid bribes.
Study: Even in competitive markets, shareholders bear burden of corruption
While the US traditionally ranks low on worldwide corruption indices, domestic political corruption still imposes substantial costs on US shareholders, according to new research co-written by Gies College of Business accounting professor Nerissa Brown.
Exploring the causes of persistent corruption
IIASA researchers used a novel approach to explore the key processes and conditions that determine corruption levels.
Factors associated with elephant poaching
Study associates illegal hunting rates in Africa with levels of poverty, corruption and ivory demand.
More Corruption News and Corruption Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at