A photo of a man in a suit sliding money across the table to someone.

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According to Dutch researcher Nils Köbis, “corruption has immense negative effects for society,” which is why four studies that he helped design and run “can potentially yield crucial social benefits.” Köbis and his colleagues at VU Amsterdam performed the studies to find out whether or not people were more susceptible to a gradual slip into corruption, or to a one-time “golden opportunity” descent.

We tend to assume that corruption on any level is a slow descent of increasingly bad acts. But it turns out that people are more inclined to commit a single act of bribery when there is a significant payoff, as opposed to when they would have to take multiple actions and build up to a significant payoff.

Participants in the studies consistently stated that bribery was ethically wrong, but that didn’t stop them from committing it. However, when they were given the opportunity to make several small bribes for the same effect as one big one, they always chose the latter. More accurately, when they were faced with one or the other option, and not both, they chose not to make several bribes.

What this shows is that people are more susceptible to corruption when faced with a “golden opportunity” because it feels like a one-time thing. The benefits outweigh the possible penalties, since they aren’t going to do it again.

But when faced with the opportunity to achieve the same effect after engaging in multiple acts of bribery, they can’t see how the potential benefit will outweigh the possible penalties, perhaps because there is a greater chance of being caught over multiple instances of bad behavior. The reason at the root of these decisions is still unknown because this kind of research is still relatively new. But these findings could set the ball rolling on some very important work, which could have a profound impact on society.