Instead of social distancing, several Indian politicians have been found to be active participants in large gatherings over the past few weeks. And despite media spotlight on how to deal with coronavirus, they remain unrepentant.

One explanation could be a very thick skin, a new study suggests.In their study, Prasenjit Banerjee and others conducted an experiment at Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and Hooghli in West Bengal to test the difference between politicians and ordinary citizens when it comes to caring for others, and to check if being watched made a difference. In the experiment, 161 politicians (gram panchayat leaders) and 110 non-politicians were paired and were given the task to share 1,000 with the partner. When conducted under anonymity, it was found that both politicians and non-politicians gave almost nothing to the other. When the experiment allowed the two groups to mingle and everyone knew whom they were paired with, both the groups became more generous.

The share of those who gave nothing to one’s partner decreased significantly: from 87% to 27% among politicians, and from 93% to 18% among non-politicians. The third stage of the experiment involved greater visibility, and both the groups turned even more generous. However, it was observed that politicians reacted less to visibility than non-politicians. Around 38% of non-politicians adopted the 50:50 sharing formula while only 27% of politicians did so. The average amount the former gave was 544 as opposed to 433 by the latter.

The fear of reputation loss affected politicians less than ordinary citizens, the study suggests. This indicates that there are limits to how far transparency norms can make politicians accountable. Scrutiny of self-serving practices of politicians alone may not hinder such practices. Honouring the good ones may be a better approach in attracting better politicians and changing the political culture in a democracy, the authors suggest.

Also read: Moral reputation and political selection in a decentralized democracy

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