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The Ethics of Receiving Gifts in Public Service: What Does the Science Say?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By JoAnne Speers
June 2, 2023

The topic of public officials receiving gifts has been in the news recently. How should public servants think about the receiving-gifts issue? Does it matter if gifts are disclosed? This article explores what the science tells us.

Two Modes of Decision-Making

Previous installments of this column shared Daniel Kahneman’s framework of System 1 (fast, intuitive and emotional) and System 2 (slower, more deliberative and analytic) thinking. Behavioral ethics research suggests System 1 thinking is often responsible for ethical missteps.

Do these concepts apply when people try to influence public administrators’ decision-making? Psychologist Robert Cialdini says “yes.”

In his book, Influence, New and Expanded, the Psychology of Persuasion, Cialdini explains that much of human behavior can be traced to mental shortcuts (“heuristics”) developed over the course of our lives. These shortcuts help us make decisions efficiently given the many demands on our time, energy and mental capacity. Cialdini says that we run these pre-set “programs” in response to triggers that produce a predictable and often subconscious (System 1) reaction.


Notably, reciprocation is the first “influence” trigger Cialdini discusses in his book. Cialdini explains that, as a social norm, reciprocation strongly motivates us to try to repay what another person has done for us. This means that, when we can do something helpful for someone who has done something nice for us, our System 1 selves very much want us to do so.


A pattern of nice gestures (particularly those involving shared time together—meals, entertainment, travel and the like) are likely to produce a reinforcing “influence” trigger:  likeability and friendship (which is second on Cialdini’s list of six triggers). Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff describes the dynamic this way “People come to believe those seeking favors and giving you things are your friends, your buddies.” Research cited by Cialdini suggests that we find it harder to say “no” to those we consider to be friends.

Over Confidence Bias

Our human tendency to use decision-making shortcuts exacerbates what psychologists call over-confidence bias. Humans are generally more confident in our abilities than the facts support. This includes our ability to act on our intention to “do the right thing” when situations tempt us to do otherwise.

Apropos to this discussion, behavioral ethics research has examined the effects of the gifts that pharmaceutical companies give to doctors. The University of Texas/Ethics Unwrapped website notes that doctors tend to believe that they are not influenced by pharmaceutical companies’ gifts, even though studies show these gifts do affect what medications doctors prescribe.

Interestingly, one study found that 64 percent of doctors believed gifts from pharmaceutical companies influenced other doctors. However, only 16 percent of doctors thought these affected their own actions.

The Importance of Public Perception

This tees up another important consideration for public servants. Our own perception of the ethicality of our actions is not the only or even most important consideration. As stewards of the public’s trust and confidence in public agencies (see ASPA Code of Ethics Principle 6), public servants must consider not only whether actual impropriety exists but whether there could be an appearance of impropriety (see ASPA Code Practice 6f).

In weighing how the public might perceive one’s action, a relevant consideration is that a significant portion of the public has a less-than-positive view of government. A 2022 survey by the Partnership for Public Service, for example, endeavored to understand how the public perceives the federal government workers. More than half the respondents believed that federal workers are hard-working and competent. However, about half agreed with the view that employees are “more interested in helping themselves than the public” and nearly half (49 percent) seemed to think that federal employees are “corrupt.”

This is where reports of public agency staff receiving gifts or other perks can be especially damaging. They can play into already negative public perceptions of those in public service (behavioral ethicists have a name for this as well: confirmation bias). This bias makes it unlikely that the public (or the media) will think that gifts and relationships are okay. And of course, this public perception tracks the science regarding reciprocation norms and friendship influences.

What About Disclosure?

Some jurisdictions require that public servants disclose gifts and similar gestures. Does that mean that gifts are okay? Behavioral ethicist Max Bazerman argues “no” because research indicates that disclosure can make public servants feel freer to act on their instinct to reciprocate. Satisfying the legal obligation to disclose whatever gift or other nice gesture they received becomes the focus of their energy, not whatever obligations they might have above and beyond the minimum requirements of the law.


Former US Attorney General Janet Reno reportedly used to pay full sticker price for new cars to avoid any perception of impropriety. In a similar vein, many public servants make it a practice to refuse gifts and other gestures. The science suggests that such a practice is a sound one, to avoid any question, now or in the future, about one’s commitment to strictly merit-based decision-making.

Author: JoAnne Speers, MPP and JD, trains and consults on public service ethics as principal of S2 Ethics Strategies. She previously served as chief executive of the Institute for Local Government, where she developed and directed its ethics program. JoAnne has also taught ethics as an adjunct professor. Her email is jspeers@strategies4ethics.

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