Political corruption makes it more likely we’ll cheat at the checkout

It’s not just Covid that’s contagious – corruption is too. We’ve always known that if some coppers, politicians or border guards take bribes their colleagues follow suit. If everyone’s at it, people don’t want to be left out. While some benefit, this corruption has very high economic costs for society as a whole.

But the corruption is corrupting phenomenon goes further. New research shows that government corruption can actually make citizens more dishonest.

Examining the impact of Italian local government corruption scandals on its citizens, the authors use an ingenious data source to measure the public’s level of dishonesty: supermarket’s self-service checkouts. Supermarkets carry out random checks on customers who have scanned their own groceries, with more than 200,000 such audits allowing us to identify how widespread dishonesty is and, crucially, how it changes over time.

The researchers use this to show that in the aftermath of a corruption scandal appearing in the media, shoppers are 16 to 30% more likely to intentionally under-report the contents of their shopping trolley. That’s a big effect that is at its strongest for four days after a scandal breaks. Reassuringly, it weakens after that.

The increase in dishonesty seems to be driven by angry taxpayers. The logic appears to be: if the council is going to rip us off, we’re damn well going to rip Sainsbury’s off. Michelle Obama might go high when they go low, but the rest of us? Not so much.

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