The decision taken before an offer of bribery causes a greater physiological arousal in those who choose to act against their own economic interests and reject it than in those who choose to accept it. This is what can be deduced from the study on physiological and behavioral aspects of corruption developed by researchers at the Universitat Jaume I, which also reveals a major tendency to act ethically and shows the effectiveness of the threat of a possible punishment when curbing corrupt attitudes.

"Contrary to what has tended to believe, it is not the violation or enforcement of a given ethical standard what triggers emotional activity, but rather the actual decision to act against the monetary self-interest", says Tarek Jaber-López, researcher at theExperimental and Computational Economics Group of the UJI. "This study has allowed us to approach the phenomenon of corruption from the experimental methodology. We designed an experiment that allowed us to analyze, through a polygraph, behavioral and emotional reactions of people facing a situation causing corrupt decisions", he says. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, shows how some individuals keep a "pro-social" behavior, rejecting corruption, even when there is no punishment mechanism. When the possibility of punishment arises, rejection to bribery becomes higher.

In the study, the experimental individuals were faced with a hypothetical tendering in which two companies were competing for the license of public works. The companies had to make offers with their quality levels and may also introduce bribes to the auctioneer, who should choose the business that finally carried out the works. Individuals acting as an enterprise, faced a social dilemma, since the higher the payment to the auctioneer, the greater the likelihood of getting the license and of maximizing their profits. However, this option involved a cost, since the reduction in quality meant a decrease in the benefit of everybody who was involved in the tendering, which would be identified with the negative consequences of corruption in society. "Although the foundations of economic theories predict a purely rational behavior and in search of personal financial gain, the results show that people seem to reveal intrinsic values that hinder them against corrupt temptations. Indeed, both businesses and public servants deviate from the strategy that maximizes their monetary benefit and opt for a more pro-social strategy", says Aurora García-Gallego, co-author of the study and member of the research group.

During the decision-making, researchers measured the physiological reactions of the individuals through the intensity of emotions using the polygraph as a tool to detect changes in sweating and emotional arousal. "Our results suggest that the strongest emotions are associated with deviations from purely monetary maximization, rather than being related to unethical behavior per se. In other words, people who make decisions challenging their own economic interests suffer greater arousal than those who care only for their personal financial gain", states Nikolaos Georgantzís, member of the research group and co-author of the study. In addition, the study observed the response times as a measure of the reflection of the individuals while taking their decisions, allowing to associate the emotional response to a conflict between primary or instinctive motivations and secondary or contemplative ones, and more accurately, with deviations from the pure monetary interest of the individuals. In this sense, researchers point out "those who suffer greater arousal show longer response times."

A second phase of the study introduced the possibility of punishment. The individuals faced the possibility that the company that did not obtain the license could activate an automatic inspection mechanism over the other two agents. The inspection carried a penalty of zero benefits for those involved if it was found that there had been a bribery. Conversely, if the public license was granted cleanly and the losing company decided to inspect, this company was the one that got zero profits. "We observed in our results that the threat of punishment is very effective to stop the offer and acceptance of briberies, although the inspection were activated on rare occasions. This mechanism gives hope to the society to curb corruption since the threat of punishment is shown to be efficient enough to allow the costs of bringing corrupts to prison, not to exceed the cost of the profit. In short, bribery can be reduced by the mere threat of punishment, rather than the frequency of punishment performed", explain the authors of the study.

For future research, the group of Experimental and Computational Economics will work on obtaining more data on the correlation between response times and physiological manifestations of emotions because "the fact that the first one can be used as a substitute for second is of great relevance to behavioral economists." They also add "more evidence is needed to establish the share of fear of punishment in the negative emotions associated with the violation of a pro-social rule."