Dishonesty and Selection into Government Service

Dick Langlois points us to an interesting NBER paper on self-selection into government service, the results of which will surprise few readers of this blog:

In this paper, we demonstrate that university students who cheat on a simple task in a laboratory setting are more likely to state a preference for entering public service. Importantly, we also show that cheating on this task is predictive of corrupt behavior by real government workers, implying that this measure captures a meaningful propensity towards corruption. Students who demonstrate lower levels of prosocial preferences in the laboratory games are also more likely to prefer to enter the government, while outcomes on explicit, two-player games to measure cheating and attitudinal measures of corruption do not systematically predict job preferences. We find that a screening process that chooses the highest ability applicants would not alter the average propensity for corruption among the applicant pool. Our findings imply that differential selection into government may contribute, in part, to corruption. They also emphasize that screening characteristics other than ability may be useful in reducing corruption, but caution that more explicit measures may offer little predictive power.


  1. The corruption is not a big problem. Only the highest supervisors and managers can sell their decisions for cash or outside benefits. “Corruption” is different than “bias”. What the IRS employees are being accused of is bias: they treat Liberal applicants better than they treat Conservative applicants. Bureaucracy was invented to eliminate bias: every citizen who appears at the counter is to be ignored in exactly the same way. Corruption is about selling your bureaucratic decisions and recommendations.

    The more common problem is that the cheating government workers are notoriously inefficient and, um, lacking in logical thinking skills. They don’t plan well. They don’t care if a 10-year long project fails completely. They simply fill out forms and go to lunch. Making a stupid decision is different from making a decision based on payoffs.

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