Sunday, April 20, 2014

It's the small bribes that suck us in

The shocking thing about the gifts and favours uncovered by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption is that they are small.

Australian Water Holdings gave the Liberal Party $75,000 - a tiny sum compared to the $1 billion contract it was seeking. It sent the premier a $3000 bottle of wine. Its behaviour is typical. At the height of the ferociously fought battle over the plain packaging of cigarettes in 2010-11 British American Tobacco gave the Liberal Party $184,565. It did it in small parcels - $2200 to the NSW branch, $10,000 to the Victorian branch, a further $5500 to the NSW branch and so on.

Most political donations are even smaller. Away from politics they are puny. Doctors routinely get pens and free samples from drug companies. They cost the companies nothing compared to what’s at stake.

Yet they work. Equally shocking is the finding from laboratory experiments that small gifts achieve more than big ones. Truly.

A few years back professors Ulrike Malmendier and Klaus Schmidt from US National Bureau of Economic Research discovered that while a small gift persuaded the recipient to award contracts to the donor’s company 68 per cent of the time (instead of 50), a gift worth three times as much cut the response back to 50 per cent, which was no better than if there been no gift at all.

The finding has disturbing implications for legislators' attempts to wind back the impact of donations by limiting their size. It suggests they will achieve little.

The study is called You Owe Me. It could have been titled: ''When less buys more''.

Malmendier and Schmidt investigated a special situation, one in which a decision maker receives a gift intended to persuade him or her to select the donor’s product over another one for a third party. In the case of the government, that third party is the taxpayer. In the case of a doctor it’s their patient; in the case of a financial adviser, their client.

What’s special about that situation is that the cost of bad decisions isn’t borne by the person who makes them. It is borne by their client.

Malmendier and Schmidt deliberately designed their experiment to make it unlikely the gifts would have any effect at all. Gifts and bribes are usually thought to be influential only if the recipient knows they will see the donor again, or if the donor will find out whether or not they’ve selected the donor’s product.

In 15 rounds of experiments with 350 students they made sure neither condition applied. After the gift the recipient never saw the donor again and the donor never found out whether it had any effect.

And they made sure the recipients knew the gift is intended to influence them.

Yet they found the effects of small gifts were huge.

Even where the products offered by the donor were clearly worse than those offered by the non-donor the decision makers chose the the worse over the better product almost 50 per cent of the time, compared to only 10 per cent when there were no donations.

As the size of the donations increased their effectiveness waned.

Their explanation for the effectiveness of small donations is that they create a special bond, what they refer to as the “dark side” of our desire to be social. Put starkly, we find it hard not to be nice to someone who has just been nice to us, even if we know it’s a trick.

And we do seem to know. Asked whether the donors were trying to influence them or just being nice, almost all of the decision makers said the gifts were an attempt to buy influence. Doctors would doubtless say the same thing about gifts from drug companies.

Big gifts may be less effective than small gifts in part because they are so visible as to be unsettling. Few people like to admit to themselves that they being bribed.

The findings suggest that rules that require the disclosure of donations above a certain size are the wrong way around. They would have more effect if they focused on donations below a certain size. And making donations public has little effect. Another part of the experiment found the decision makers behaved in exactly the same way whether or not the client knew they had been accepting small gifts.

The implications go beyond politics.

Labor outlawed commissions for financial advisers in 2013. The Coalition plans to bring them back in a limited way by allowing banks to pay their staff ''volume-based'' bonuses of up to 10 per cent of their total wages.

It is an extraordinarily bad idea.

The small rewards the Coalition would allow may enable the banks to skew the recommendations of their staff more effectively than the big ones they would not. Small rewards are pernicious. They sneak in under our radar.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald