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Can Corruption be Studied in the Lab?: Comparing a Field and a Lab Experiment

This paper makes an attempt at testing the external validity of corruption lab experiments.

Some authors (e.g Peishakhin, 2011) defend that corruption can be studied only in field experiments given its clandestine and sensitive features. To test whether lab experiments could be used to understand real corruption situations, Armantier and Boly (2008) replicated their field experiment made in Burkina Faso in a laboratory in Canada.

In both experiments - lab and field - , participants were asked to grade 20 dictation tests. The 11th test had a post-it with the message “please find few mistakes in my test” and a money offer enclosed. In Burkina Faso, 166 graders were recruited via newspaper ads for a two-day job. They were informed that they were taking part in an experiment only in the debriefing session, after the grading phase. In Canada, even though the 125 participants were aware they were part of an experiment, they did not know what it was about.

In both experiments, treatments included variations in the amount of the bribe, the wage paid to the graders and the level of monitoring and punishment.

Results showed that 67% of graders in the lab and 48% in the field accepted the bribe. The results were similar in both experiments, with one exception: in the field, the bigger the bribe, the more likely participants were to accept the bribe, whereas in the lab the corruption level was stable, no matter how much money was offered.

Another interesting result of the study was that taking the bribe affected the grading of the tests corrected afterwards. In the monitoring treatment, those corrections were more accurate. However, in the no-monitoring condition the corrections were less accurate and more inconsistent. That happened in the field as well as in the laboratory tests.

The study provides good evidence that corruption can be studied in the laboratory. Armantier and Boly (2008, 2012) say that, although there are differences in laboratory and field experiments behavior, the same determinants of behavior may apply.


This paper makes an attempt at testing the external validity of corruption experiments by moving from the lab in a developed country, to where it matters the most, the field in a developing country. In our experiment a candidate proposes a bribe to a grader in order to obtain a better grade. We find the direction and the magnitude of most treatment effects to be statistically indistinguishable between the lab and the field. In particular, increasing the graders’ wage reduces in both environments the probability to accept the bribe. Finally, we identify several micro-determinants of corruption (age, religiousness, ability).

Article reference

O. Armantier & A. Boly, "Can Corruption be Studied in the Lab?: Comparing a Field and a Lab Experiment", CIRANO - Scientific Publications No. 2008s-26 (2008).


K. Abbink, B. Irlenbusch & E. Renner, “An experimental bribery game”, Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, 18(2), 428-454 (2002).

O. Armantier, & A. Boly, “On the external validity of laboratory experiments on corruption”, Research in Experimental Economics, 15, 117-144 (2012).

L. V. Peisakhin, “Field experimentation and the study of corruption”, International Handbook on the Economics of Corruption, Vol. 2, 335-356 (2011).

Author : Olivier Armantier and Amadou Boly

15 Oct 2014

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Institution(s): University of Brasília. Research Field: Behavioural science of corruption. Read More...

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