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Arthur Schafer is the founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

This Christmas, the mayor of Winnipeg sent a package of treats to members of city council. The package included popcorn and brownies, with a cookie on top. A local business was similarly benevolent to councillors, distributing boxes of chocolates.

Winnipeg’s Integrity Commissioner was asked to rule on the issue of whether it would be a conflict of interest for councillors to accept these gifts. The test she applied was: “Might [this gift] reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the member in the exercise of their public duties?” She then ruled that the gifts were okay.

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Common sense would seem to agree with her ruling. How could anyone reasonably suppose that the impartial judgment of city councillors (or anyone else) could be seduced by a gift of such paltry value?

And yet, there is considerable evidence from social-science research demonstrating that small gifts have a remarkable ability to bias the recipient’s judgment. Where common sense goes wrong is in supposing that gift size matters greatly, because gifts operate primarily at the level of conscious deliberation.

Which public official would deliberately sell his or her vote for a box of chocolates? It seems ridiculous. But perhaps we should all pay more attention to a truth that Big Pharma discovered decades ago and puts generously into practice today in its dealings with the medical profession. Little gifts can pack a big wallop. Empirical research shows that doctors who accept monogrammed pens and notepads from drug industry reps tend (unconsciously) to prescribe more of the companies’ products.

The practice of gift-giving is a powerful instrument by which to influence the behaviour of others. But,Surprisingly, research shows that the size of the gift matters much less than one would suppose. That’s because we have been culturally shaped to return benefit for benefit. The need to reciprocate is a basic motivator in virtually every human society.

It’s true that the larger and more significant the gift, the greater the sense of indebtedness on the part of the recipient. But even token gifts such as a box of chocolates or a coffee mug can have a surprisingly large (albeit subconscious) effect. Trinkets and baubles – small gifts of all kinds – help to establish a friendly relationship between the gift-giver and the gift recipient. As one researcher astutely observes, people who don’t recognize the power of small gifts are precisely those most likely to be influenced, because their defences are down.

In other words, whether intended or not, every gift to a public official comes with strings attached – strings which are often difficult to recognize but no less powerful for that.

Those who see no ethical problem with small gifts to public servants should try imagining how they would feel if they were litigants in a civil trial and discovered that the judge trying the case had accepted even a free cup of coffee and a doughnut from the other party to the case. In this situation we have little difficulty recognizing that small gifts can have a potentially big effect. Judges who accept so much as a free cup of coffee from those who appear in their court, whether as lawyers or litigants, are putting themselves in an ethically troubling conflict-of-interest situation.

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Similarly, elected officials owe their unbiased judgment to the people who elected them. By accepting gifts, even a token gift such as a box of chocolates, they put at risk the impartiality of their judgment, thereby undermining their ethical obligation as public servants. When reasonable people understand how easily our judgment can be influenced, they will insist upon a zero-tolerance policy for all gifts, large and small, to officials whose obligation it is to avoid bias.

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