Skip to main content

When Cooperation Leads to Corruption

Researchers created a die-rolling game to show that we're all dirty, dirty liars.
(Photo: yoshiyasu nishikawa/Flickr)

(Photo: yoshiyasu nishikawa/Flickr)

Collaboration has many benefits. Cooperative kindergarteners, for example, are more successful later in life. But a new study, published today in PNAS, highlights a dark side of cooperation—when collaboration encourages corruption.

Past studies have shown that people will often bend the truth to benefit a friend, so researchers from Germany and the United Kingdom created a die-rolling game to see if working together might also make lying more likely.

In one experiment, 280 participants were paired off. Player A rolled a six-sided die first, and reported the number rolled (via computer) to player B, who then had their own chance to roll. The game continued—roll, report, roll, report—for 20 rounds, with the objective of the game being to roll matching numbers. Every time the players rolled the same number, they each received that number of Euros as a reward. If the numbers didn’t match, the players got nothing. Only the players could see what they actually rolled, and could thus lie without fear of detection.

"We thought there would be more lying in a collaborative setting, but we didn't realize there would be so much completely brazen lying."

For each round, the probability of rolling the same number is one in six, or slightly more than 16 percent. In 20 rounds, the players should roll matching numbers an average of 3.33 times. But the researchers found that the teams reported an average of 16.3 matches—nearly five times the expected number.

"Collaboration led to a lot of dishonesty," says Ori Weisel, a research fellow at the University of Nottingham and lead author on the study. "Many people seem to lose their inhibitions completely."

Clearly player B—who was responsible for rolling and reporting matches—was up to no good. But the mischief wasn't entirely one-sided. Over 20 rounds, the average of each players' rolls should have settled around 3.5, but both players' averages were significantly higher—closer to five. Player A was likely reporting higher numbers than she was actually rolling, driving up the amount of money the partners in crime walked away with.

"We thought there would be more lying in a collaborative setting, but we didn't realize there would be so much completely brazen lying," Weisel says. In half of the experiments, the B players reported matching rolls in all 20 rounds—"which is virtually impossible if you think about the chance of that happening," he adds. Further, B players were likely taking cues from their partners: They were much more likely to cheat when A players brazenly rolled impossibly consistent high numbers, like 20 sixes in a row. "Player A inflated the rolls and thereby set the stage for player B," Weisel explains.

When the researchers manipulated the rewards, the number of reported matches dropped—though still exceeded the expected number. B players still lied even when only player A was rewarded for matches. "It only goes to show how powerful the collaborative setting is," Weisel says. "People are willing to pay the moral cost of lying even if they don't stand to get any material benefit—the only benefit is the joy of collaboration."

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.