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Effect of holding office on the behavior of politicians

  1. Brigitte Seimd,1
  1. aIndependent Research Consultant, San Diego?, CA? 92116;
  2. bDepartment of Political Science, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0521;
  3. cDepartment of Political Science and School of Law, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708;
  4. dDepartment of Public Policy, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3435
  1. Edited by James D. Fearon, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, and approved October 7, 2016 (received for review June 17, 2015)


Does being elected to political office change an individual’s behavior? Some scholars and policymakers assert that elected officials are inherently different from nonpoliticians, whereas others argue that political institutions or the culture of politics inculcate certain behaviors. We identify the effect of holding office on behavior. We recruit in-office and out-of-office politicians in Zambia to participate in behavioral games that measure reciprocity, a behavioral trait that underpins various interactions in the political arena from bribery to lobbying to legislative bargaining. We find that holding elected office causes an increase in reciprocity. The policy implication of this finding is that political institutions, culture, and incentive structures can be designed to shape the behavior and choices of society’s leaders.


Reciprocity is central to our understanding of politics. Most political exchanges—whether they involve legislative vote trading, interbranch bargaining, constituent service, or even the corrupt exchange of public resources for private wealth—require reciprocity. But how does reciprocity arise? Do government officials learn reciprocity while holding office, or do recruitment and selection practices favor those who already adhere to a norm of reciprocity? We recruit Zambian politicians who narrowly won or lost a previous election to play behavioral games that provide a measure of reciprocity. This combination of regression discontinuity and experimental designs allows us to estimate the effect of holding office on behavior. We find that holding office increases adherence to the norm of reciprocity. This study identifies causal effects of holding office on politicians’ behavior.


  • ?1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: seimbri{at}gmail.com.
  • Author contributions: D.E., C.G., M.M., and B.S. designed research; D.E., C.G., and B.S. performed research; D.E. and B.S. analyzed data; and D.E., C.G., M.M., and B.S. wrote the paper.

  • The authors declare no conflict of interest.

  • This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

  • This article contains supporting information online at www.danielhellerman.com/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1511501113/-/DCSupplemental.

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