Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics

CeDEx 2016-14: Complicity without Connection or Communication

Complicity without Connection or Communication


Complicity, "the fact or condition of being involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong" (Oxford English Dictionary), plays a part in many types of wrongdoing. Alarming instances of wrongdoing involving complicity are often brought to light. For example, in the 1990s an inquiry revealed that many babies had died after heart surgery at the Bristol Royal Infirmary because medical professionals had not been applying appropriate standards of safety and had remained collectively silent about the issue for half a decade. To effectively tackle this type of complicity we need to know whether it can emerge only among people who know each other (either as friends or colleagues), or whether people carry an intrinsic tendency to coordinate, even with strangers, despite coordination implying that they have to behave immorally.

Like other aspects of immoral behaviour, complicity is difficult to observe and study in the field. So, Abigail and Georgia designed and conducted a behavioural experiment focused on the Complicity Game. In this game, two players, who do not know each other's identity are each asked to roll a die in private and report the outcome. The report of each player determines the monetary payoff received by the other. In addition, each player receives a bonus if both reports are 5 and a higher bonus if both reports are 6. A comparison of the distribution of die roll reports made in the Complicity Game to the expected distribution for a fair die indicates that a significant proportion of people are willing to coordinate with a stranger when coordination requires that they lie. Further, when that stranger is made passive, ie is prevented from acting as an accomplice, while everything else in the game is kept the same, people are less willing to lie. These findings indicate that complicity does not depend on social ties or communication and that, to an extent at least, the emergence of complicity is owing to an intrinsic desire to coordinate with others facing similar incentives even when coordination requires immoral behavior.

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Abigail Barr and Georgia Michailidou

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Posted on Friday 16th September 2016

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