When politicians cheat

An economist has claimed people are more likely to cheat when they see politicians cheating.

The economist ran an experiment asking people to self-report their scores in a simple exam. When participants saw others cheating, they inflated their scores to  twice as much as a control group.

The study makes a leap that this effect is also at work when people see politicians cheating, such as a US politician who cheated on his taxes.

It’s not hard to make this leap. The study backs up others that show our environment affects our behaviour.  For example, people in a noisy environment are less likely to be helpful to each other. People who see crimes are more willing to commit crimes.

But there are three important differences between the experiment and the context of a politician cheating; a citizen’s own moral code, the ‘distance’ between politicians and citizens, and the low mana of politicians.

The moral code of individuals surely makes the first call. It’s difficult to see how a politician cheating on their spouse would make me more likely to do so as well.

Politicians are not in direct contact with large numbers of citizens. Their affairs, so to speak, are in a slightly unreal world citizens mainly watch from afar.

In addition, politicians regularly score lowest in the lists of trusted professions (and here). So citizens don’t see necessarily use them as a moral standard.

If we’re looking for an effect of political naughtiness on citizens, it must be stronger with regard to civil duties. These are things that the State set up largely for itself, such as taxes. If politicians don’t abide by these rules, then citizens are surely a smidgen more likely to cut corners as well.

I think the effect of cheating politicians is not so much about rule breaking, but about their treatment once discovered.

Politics is one of the most significant ground for debate about common values, and politicians are society’s proxy for their views in that debate.

That is why the actions of politicians are so closely scrutinised. They’re not role-modelling, they’re avatars helping society define itself.

In that context, it is not the cheating of politicians which influences subsequent conduct by citizens, but the response to the cheating, by their peers, institutions such as the judicial system, and the public at large.

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