For centuries, philosophers and economists have debated the question of whether competition disciplines people to behave morally, or instead corrupts them. On the one hand, free-market scholars have believed that healthy competition rewards honesty and fairness. For example, only an honest merchant will see customers return, whereas a dishonest merchant will lose customers to competing businesses. On the other hand, other scholars have believed that competitive pressure leads people to lie and cheat. For example, a business might cheat on taxes or use unethical production practices to avoid losing out to a competitor.
This question has not only been debated by scholars, but also been tested empirically. To do so, scholars could, for example, ask people how competitive they are, and then ask them how much they lie and cheat. However, such a questionnaire would face several problems: For one, people don’t like to admit that they lie and cheat, so the results would probably not mean much. For another, even if such a relation was found, we wouldn’t know whether competitiveness caused cheating, or vice versa. It could be that cheaters just lack empathy for others and this makes them more competitive, instead of the original idea that competition makes people less moral.
This is when scientists resort to experiments. These are the gold standard of research because they allow us to test causality. If in an experiment, all that changes between two conditions is whether a situation is competitive or not, and we find differences in moral behavior, we know that competition was the cause. However, designing experiments can be tricky. How do we get people to feel competitive? How do we measure lying and cheating? Such judgments are up to the researcher doing the experiment, and different researchers might have very different ideas on how to create competitive situations and how to measure moral behavior. As a result, science has found in some studies that competition does lead to immoral behavior, whereas other studies have found the opposite. Such inconsistent findings can be frustrating and confusing to students, scholars, and policymakers who rely on scientific findings to create good policies.
To address these problems, a large team of researchers (that I was fortunate to be included in) set out on a mission: We would form 45 individual teams, of which each would design an experiment to test the question of whether competition affects moral behavior. Each team could decide how to create competition, and how to measure moral behavior. The only caveats: The experiment would need to be conducted online, on a panel of research participants (mostly from the US and UK), and would not require any cover story or deception of participants. These 45 experiments (using 18,123 participants in total) would then be combined into a so-called meta-analysis, another gold standard of scientific research. In such an analysis, the results of all experiments are combined in a way that is more informative than individual experiments.
Imagine doing all this work, compiling all the data, and then hitting “go” on the statistics program that tells you what the analysis found! What did we find? Overall, competition does lead to immoral behavior. Participants in conditions where they competed with others were more likely to lie, cheat, or be selfish than those who did not compete. Thus, competition does tend to corrupt people. Yet, effect sizes are small, which means that only a small part of immoral behavior is due to the competitive environment. Some people will always cheat, whereas others never do, regardless of competition. And, not all of the 45 experiments found that competition leads to immoral behavior. Enough showed this effect to produce an overall statistically robust effect in the meta-analysis, but not every competitive situation necessarily leads to immoral behavior.
This project not only speaks to the age-old question of whether competition corrupts people. It also speaks to science as a whole, by highlighting the need for systematic and open research practices. Only if scientists share their experiments in detail can the public learn under what conditions an effect emerges and under what conditions not. This is how science can create a body of knowledge that we can build on.