Do you want to bribe political decision-makers but you’re not sure when to do it? Even the most acclaimed political bribers sometimes agonize over such questions as:
- Should you give a bribe as soon as you present decision-makers with your initiative, legislative proposal, bid, etc or after they had some time to consider its merits?
- Should you still bribe even when you feel that your case is clearly stronger on its merits than that of your rivals?
- Conversely, should you even try bribing when your case is objectively weaker on its merits than that of your rivals?
The art of bribing may be an ancient art but we still don’t have many definitive answers about how to most effectively use it. Fortunately, behavioral research now provides some tentative answers to these important problems.
Research on Effective Bribing
These questions are explored in a study by Uri Gneezy, Silvia Saccardo, and Roel van Veldhuizen, published in 2018 in the Journal of the European Economic Association.
The researchers tested the effectiveness of bribing using a simple experimental setup. Some participants acted as joke writers: they had to write a joke, for example, about economists or psychologists. Other subjects acted as judges deciding the funniest jokes. Joke writers could also give bribes up to $5 to a judge to better convince them that their joke was funnier.
Early Timing for Successful Bribing
One of the critical findings of the study is that if you want to bribe effectively it is very important to give your bribe as early as possible. For instance, in the experiment some subjects bribed their judges when they submitted their jokes, while others could only bribe two minutes after submitting their joke.
The bribe had little effect when given two minutes after submitting the joke, i.e. when judges already had enough time to read the jokes and make up their minds; in such scenario, the judges choose the joke that was objectively better about 80 percent of the time.
The reason is that when you give decision-makers your bribe before they evaluate your proposal and make up their mind, the bribe makes it easier for them to convince themselves that the option with the most money is the objectively the best one.
In contrast, once decision-makers make up their mind, bribing as not nearly as effective because people may feel conscious about being biased, and there is a greater danger their morals will stand in the way.
In sum, it is a lot easier to distort judgment when decision-makers haven’t made up their minds about right thing to do.
Bribing When You Have a Superior Offer
Some people think that there is no need to bribe when you have an objectively much stronger proposal, bid, etc. Others think you should always bribe regardless how strong is your case.
The study suggests that it all depends on whether your rivals will be bribing too. Even if they have a weaker case but they give a bribe and you don’t, they may win.
So even if you have stronger case but you expect that your rivals will bribe, you should bribe too.
Bribing When You Have an Inferior Offer
Conversely, when you have an inferior offer your optimal move also depends on your rivals. The good news is that if your rivals with a superior offer won’t be bribing, then your bribe is likely succeed even if you have objectively clearly inferior offer.
In the experiment, if the judges could only keep one bribe then 90 percent of the time they chose the winner that offered the most money. But if they could keep both bribes, then they selected an objectively better joke almost 85 percent of the time, even if it came with less money than the objectively inferior joke.
So when your rivals have a stronger case and they are also bribing (even if offering less money than you), then your bribe will likely be wasted and it’s probably better to save your resources for later bribes.
Bribing in the Real-World
A word of caution is needed here before you start bribing people in the real world in accordance with this research. The variables in the real-world bribing are no doubt more complicated than in such a simple experimental setup.
For instance, when you have a much weaker offer, proposal, case, etc you might optimistically expect that a bribe will always ensure favorable decisions as long as your rivals with stronger cases don’t also bribe, but this may not necessarily be that easy.
In the real world, unfortunately, political decision-makers may have greater fears about potential damage to their reputation if the public begins suspecting that political decisions were warped by bribes.
Research regrettably still leaves many important questions unanswered.
For instance, once in a while you’ll run into a representative or a city councilor or a chair of a committee or some other decision maker who for some reason, such as the lack of flexible moral principles, will simply refuse to take your bribe.
Thankfully, such cases are rare enough, but still it would be good if researchers would study more extensively who are most likely to present such obstacles and various strategies for dealing with them.
When to Bribe in a Nutshell
Here are the basic guidelines for bribing based on this research:
- The early briber catches the break;
- When you have a stronger case, bribe only when your rivals are bribing too;
- When you have a weaker case, bribe only when your rivals aren’t bribing too.
Of course, if you have resources to waste, you can rely on a very simple heuristic: Bribe early, bribe always, bribe as much as you can. Just do it! Just bribe them!
You have nothing to lose (except maybe your moral integrity and perhaps freedom from criminal prosecution).
Uri Gneezy, Silvia Saccardo, and Roel van Veldhuizen. “Bribery: Behavioral Drivers of Distorted Decisions.” Journal of the European Economic Association (2018). DOI: 10.1093/jeea/jvy043
Image: Wikimedia Commons