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There Really Is Honor Among Thieves

Human beings are kind and trustworthy. That makes them excellent thieves.

Key points

  • Traditionally, researchers have assumed that people cheat and steal for selfish reasons.
  • People often cheat and break the rules for cooperative reasons, to help friends and coworkers.
  • Cooperation and trust help groups to engage in large-scale fraud and corruption.

Over the past week, there have been a series of large-scale thefts at high-end California retailers. For example, in Walnut Creek, a group of up to 80 masked robbers stole up to $200,000 in merchandise from a Nordstrom store. Over a period of several days, similar incidents took place in San Francisco and Beverly Hills.

These incidents illustrate something extremely important about human nature. They reveal that people—even thieves and looters—are cooperative and trustworthy.

Like the one in Walnut Creek, large-scale thefts could never succeed without high levels of cooperation and trust between group members. Individual participants have to trust that the other group members will show up simultaneously, that they will fairly share stolen merchandise, and that those caught by the authorities won’t betray the rest of the team. Without trust and cooperation, it would be impossible to arrange coordinated, large-scale thefts.

More generally, these recent examples of large-scale theft point to the idea that human virtues (such as cooperation and trust) often help people engage in dishonest and unethical behavior. Organizations and governments shouldn’t be so worried about selfish lone wolves cheating the system. Instead, they should be more concerned about the problem of collaborative corruption. Thieves and cheaters are not antisocial loners, only looking out for themselves. They are often cooperative and trusting people, working together to achieve common (unethical) goals.

Collaborative Corruption

In the early 2000s, many researchers in psychology and economics became interested in studying when (and why) people cheat and break the rules. The majority of this research took an individual-level approach to understand why people are dishonest. Studies typically focused on understanding the types of personality traits and psychological states that would make one person more (or less) likely to lie or cheat on their taxes. In these studies, the benefits of cheating were usually personal. If you were a participant in a typical cheating study, those who told lies earned more money (for themselves) than those who told the truth.

But this research tended to overlook the important social aspects of cheating. People cheat and commit crimes to help themselves and to help other people. People commit crimes to help their families (like Walter White from Breaking Bad) or their coworkers (like those involved in the Volkswagen emissions scandal). When an athlete breaks the rules—for example, using illegal steroids—this can have benefits that carry over for the entire team. The desire to cheat to help others is much stronger than the desire to cheat for selfish reasons.

To illustrate this point, Weisel and Shalvi (2015) conducted a series of studies in which participants could engage in individual corruption (cheating for their benefit) or collaborative corruption (cheating to help both yourself and another person). They found consistent evidence that people are more willing to cheat when the benefits are collaborative (rather than individual). And, importantly, corruption is highest when people’s incentives are in alignment with each other.

Rethinking Corruption

Research on collaborative corruption suggests that governments and organizations need to rethink why people engage in unethical behavior. We spend too much time thinking about individual bad apples who are in it purely for themselves.

Instead, we should realize that corruption (whether it comes from mass looters or dishonest corporations) has its roots in human virtues like cooperation and trust. The prosocial traits that help societies to achieve great things also make people excellent thieves.

References

Weisel, O., & Shalvi, S. (2015). The collaborative roots of corruption. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(34), 10651-10656.

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