Plata o Plomo?

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

 

“Everyone has a price, the important thing is to find out what it is”, so said Pablo Escobar (in real life, not just in Narcos). But was he right? Picture the following scenario: You are taking part in an experiment where you roll a die once, and report the result to the experimenter. If you report rolling a 6, you receive a certain amount of money. Unfortunately you roll a 1. However, the experiment is set up so that nobody other than you can see what you rolled. If you cheat, nobody will ever know. Would you cheat, and report a six, when the money on offer is:

 

(a) £1, (b) £5, (c) £10, (d) £50, (e) £150?

 

This study was recently run, under test conditions, by researchers based at the University of Koblenz-Landau, in Germany. True to their word, the researchers were blind to the actual die rolls, but were able to infer patterns of cheating by participants’ responses (e.g., if someone reports six sixes in a row, they could in theory be telling the truth, but the probability of this pattern actually coming up is 1 in 46,656: 1/6 x 1/6 x 1/6 x 1/6 x 1/6 x 1/6). On the basis of their results, the researchers were able to identify four different personality types when it comes to honesty. But which are you?

 

  • If you said “no” throughout then congratulations: You are incorruptible!
  • If you said “yes” for all the amounts, then you are what the researchers called a “brazen liar”, prepared to cheat (albeit in this low-stakes scenario) for virtually any incentive at all.
  • If you said “no” for (a) and “yes” for (e), switching somewhere in between, then you try to be honest but (as Pablo would have predicted) are corruptible if the price is right.
  • If you said “yes” for (a) but “no” for (e), switching somewhere in between, then you are a “small sinner”. You will cheat for a small payoff, but feel too guilty if you get too much in return.

 

So Pablo was partly right: Most people do have a price. But for some people, a smaller price is better than a big one.

 

A fully referenced version of this article is available at benambridge.com. Order Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £8.99) for £6.99 at bookshop.theguardian.com

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