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Athur Schaffer is a professor and founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba

Our Prime Minister claims that only cynics would think his ministers could be bought for the price of a $1,500 ticket to intimate Liberal Party fundraising dinners. I suspect that Justin Trudeau isn't just saying this. He really believes it. After all, in today's world $1,500 is little more than loose change to our political elite or to members of the corporate elite with whom they regularly schmooze.

But is he right? Do you have to be a cynic to think top executives from Big Oil and Big Finance are buying influence when they purchase "face time" with the Minister of Natural Resources, the Minister of Finance or, indeed, with the Prime Minister himself?

Research on the power of gifts to bias the judgment of decision makers tells an interesting story. Strikingly, what the evidence demonstrates is that even small gifts can be highly effective.

I have lectured on "conflict of interest" to physicians and medical researchers across Canada, the United States and Europe. Surprisingly, no one thinks they can be bought. "I can't be bought for …" is the near-universal refrain from doctors, even when the ellipsis is filled in with substantial amounts of money or exotic vacations.

Physicians are targeted with gifts even more often than cabinet ministers. Big Pharma spends tens of thousands of dollars annually on each Canadian doctor: free samples, free entertainment and free travel are commonplace. These days, the gifts come thinly disguised as "for educational purposes." However, no company gives away its shareholders' money from pure altruism. In truth, it's not education. It's product marketing.

The companies understand what the doctors don't: That these gifts successfully induce doctors to prescribe their products. Similarly, they know that the money they donate to politicians will often result in lucrative government contracts or favourable legislation.

Most politicians, like most doctors, believe they can accept industry largesse without these gifts biasing their judgment. They are mistaken.

When it comes to buying influence, empirical research demonstrates not only that gifts are powerfully effective but also that gift size is comparatively unimportant. Everyone enjoys getting free stuff. But self-interest is only part of the story. When we accept a gift we become, consciously or not, beholden to the person who has given it to us.

Both gift-giving and reciprocity are deeply embedded in our culture. When someone does us a favour or gives us a gift, even something as inconsequential as a free lunch or tickets to watch the Blue Jays, we feel the need to reciprocate. Reciprocity is a basic motivator in virtually every human society. Add private self-interest to the principle of reciprocity and you have a winning combination when it comes to buying influence.

When politicians and doctors insist that their judgment cannot be subverted by gifts of any size, their indignant denial usually rests on a failure to understand how gifts exercise their power.

When Mr. Trudeau and his ministers accept political donations from the corporate elite, they don't then consciously favour those corporations with lucrative government contracts or special legislative measures. When your doctor accepts a fancy dinner from Big Pharma, she doesn't then deliberately proceed to prescribe drugs she knows to be ineffective or unnecessarily expensive.

What research shows is that although individuals strive to be objective, their judgments are subject to an unconscious and unintentional bias. We may think our decisions are evidence-based, but the manner in which we weigh the evidence becomes skewed in favour of those who have benefited us in the past, thereby making us feel indebted, or from whom we hope to benefit again in the future.

Both politicians and physicians owe us their disinterested judgment. Accepting benefits of any sort from powerful interests is a violation of their most basic professional obligation. Sadly, at the end of the day, that "free lunch" comes with a heavy price tag: the loss of public trust.