Scientists have, for the first time, shown that students who are cheats in school are more likely to opt for a government job.
This relationship does not appear to vary by ability, suggesting that screening on ability does not change the level of honesty of those chosen for a government service among the pool of applicants.
Similar is the case with nurses working in India. Those found to be dishonest in a unique test were more prone to fraudulent absenteeism in the government sector.
The results are part of a large scale study by Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania conducted among 662 students from seven large universities in Bangalore. The study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, set students a number of tasks, which were predictive of corrupt behaviour by real government workers. It was then found that cheating students are more likely to want a job in public service.
The students who wanted to enter public service were also less likely to demonstrate behaviour intended to benefit other people or society as a whole.
The author of the paper, Rema Hanna from Harvard University, conducted three separate tests to reach these conclusions.
First, students in Bangalore were asked to roll a dice 42 times and report what numbers they got. The higher the numbers on the dice, which students had to report, the more they would get paid (around Rs 400 per session). Hanna and her co-author, Shing-Yi Wang from the University of Pennsylvania, discovered that cheating among the students was rampant with more than a third reporting numbers that were abnormally high. When measured against career preferences, students who cheated on the dice game were 6.3% more likely to want a government job.
Government nurses from 333 primary health centres (PHC) across five districts in Karnataka were then made to undergo the same test.
Researchers said bureaucratic absenteeism is an attractive form of corruption to study because one can measure whether the bureaucrat is fraudulently collecting a pay check for a day not worked. They carried out nine rounds of independent random checks of the primary health centre staff between July 2010 and November 2012. However, cheating wasn't that rampant among this group (only 9.1% scored the abnormally high results). However, amongst those who were thought to have cheated, absenteeism with false reasons was much higher.
"Overall, we find that dishonest individuals - as measured by the dice task - prefer to enter government service," wrote Hanna. "Importantly, we show that cheating on this task is also predictive of fraudulent behaviours by real government officials," they added.
According to Hanna, the study funded in part by Harvard Dean's Grant and the Russell Sage Foundation offers two key policy insights.
First, the recruitment and screening process for bureaucrats in India may be improved by increasing the emphasis on characteristics other than ability. Second, while recent empirical papers have shown that reducing the returns to corrupt behaviour decreases the probability that bureaucrats engage in corruption, "our work suggests that these interventions may have had even broader effects by changing the composition of who might apply".
A separate test looked at a set of tasks that was predictive of pro-social behaviour - actions which benefited other people and society. Students were then asked to divide the money they received between themselves and a charity. The deal, however, was whatever they gave to charity would be doubled. The test then found that those who gave the least to charity were most likely to want to work in government.
The study concluded: "Through this study, we offer evidence that college students who cheat on a simple task are more likely to prefer to enter government service after graduation. Importantly, we also show that cheating on this task is also predictive of fraudulent behaviours by real government officials, which implies that the measure captures a meaningful propensity towards corruption. Given that the existing methods of measuring corruption only apply for those who are already entrenched in the bureaucracy, our validation of a measure of cheating against real-world corruption outcomes offers an important tool for future research on selection and corruption".