The Social Psychology of Corruption

There are many theories about the causes of corruption, ranging cultural explanations to economic models. But relatively little attention has been paid to the social-psychological causes of corruption, especially at the individual level. Yet as the sociologist Marina Zaloznaya persuasively argues in a recent paper, we need to pay more attention to the individual social psychology of corrupt behavior if we are to combat it effectively. And indeed, there is a small but growing number of empirical studies (including some discussed previously on this blog) that have investigated why a person might act dishonestly, and in particular consider how an individual’s tendency to commit corrupt acts may depend on both the person’s moral identity and the surrounding circumstances. Although there is still much we do not understand, this research offers some revealing insights.

Most people, even in systemically corrupt countries, claim to disapprove of corruption. How, then, can corruption become so widespread? Some research indicates that individuals can come to perceive ordinarily unethical acts as ethical through disengagement of moral agency. This can happen in several ways, all of which relate to whether or not the actor sees human consequences to his/her actions. When the harm inflicted by corruption is more remote or abstract, individuals are less likely to see the conduct as unethical. Consistent with this general view, other research has found that corrupt behavior often originates because certain individuals do not see the corrupt act as an ethical issue.

Perhaps even more interesting and important concerns the psychological dynamics through which corruption becomes widespread in groups or organizations. (For a previous discussion of the cultural characteristics of corrupt organizations, see Alison Taylor’s recent guest post, which is largely consistent with the research surveyed here.) When some individuals in an organization behave corruptly, others may imitate them, perhaps because they also come to view the behavior as acceptable, or simply because they think that everyone else is doing it. Other studies highlight the importance of loyalty: Individuals who feel a sense of commitment to the group or person committing the corrupt act feel an obligation to at least remain silent, if not participate.

Perhaps more intriguing, and troubling, is that some individuals’ personalities and moral dispositions may change when they become part of a group. “Social identity theory” suggests that a person can think an act is immoral before becoming a part of the group, and then their personality changes to conform to the predominant identity of the group. Research suggests that this social identity theory may indeed explain why corruption can persist in a system long after the original corrupt actors leave.

If this research is accurate, what might it suggest for strategies to fight corruption? The issue is obviously very complex, but here are some preliminary thoughts:

  • Many movements, such as the anticorruption movement in India, focus on political issues, often rallying around a specific legislation or case. But these efforts shoudl be complemented with a social campaigns centered on the morality of corruption, humanizing the problem on an individual level.
  • One way to combat “group behavior” is to involve outsiders. For instance, in one experiment, participants were more likely to act against the transgressions of an in-group member only when there were out-group observers. The study suggests that “the presence of out-group observers trigger a self-categorization process that induces guilt in individuals for their group members’ transgressions.” This kind of outsider oversight can be implemented in institutions ranging from government offices to private businesses, but can be costly.
  • Intriguingly, reminding individuals of different aspects of their group identity can alter their moral instincts and behavior. This suggests that there might be interventions that emphasize (or de-emphasize) certain images, symbols, and other aspects of group identity in order to promote more ethical behavior.

These ideas are only tentative and preliminary. The more important point is this: until and unless we conduct more research on the moral and psychological problem of corruption on an individual level, we will not be able to develop anticorruption strategies that produce sustainable solutions.

8 thoughts on “The Social Psychology of Corruption

  1. Thanks for sharing! I really like Gorta’s work on this:

    Gorta, Angela. 1998. “Minimising Corruption: Applying lessons from the crime prevention literature” in: Crime, Law and Social Change 30, pp. 67-87

    Gorta, Angela and Forell, Suzie. 1995. “Layers of decision: Linking social definitions of corruption and willingness to take action” in: Crime, Law and Social Change 23, pp. 315-343

  2. Interesting article and post – again. Corruption is not an individual activity. It requires social interaction and “bargaining.” Corruption also needs to be empowered, which means top leadership is in some way either permissive or directly a beneficiary of the corrupt activity. Evidence is replete that whistle-blowers become targets of bullying and adverse actions from the organization. It is simply much more beneficial from a social and employee standpoint to support the hierarchy such as it is rather than confront it to change it. Corrupt leadership will finance to protect their corrupt organization leaving the opposition under capitalized and ostracized. Corruption is a selfish act of personal benefit from increased power and/or money. There generally is not an issue of awareness.

  3. A brilliant insight. The individuals’ psychology should be an entry point in fighting corruption. The different interventions should be keen on finding the gap between conceptualizing a corrupt deed and execution. Punishment or reward should be in a way that we discourage it from taking the shape of a norm. Especially in African context it is almost a norm to be corrupt. The systems are meant to fail so that corruption can thrive. Despite the steps taken to curb this I think it is time we attack the behavioral bit through the psychology of people.

  4. Anusha, thanks for a great post! It’s great to see attention to social psychological dynamics in this area – obviously very important, but as you said, a piece of the puzzle that often gets overlooked. Your post, and the second solution you mentioned in particular, made me think of another area of social psychology that might inform our understanding of corruption – intergroup anxiety. In countries with a history of ethnic tensions, these issues could be really important. Of course, research suggests that stereotyping and prejudice are issues in most intergroup interactions, so maybe these dynamics are even more broadly applicable.

    Specifically, I wonder if the moral agency disengagement you mention could occur or strengthen through the generalized negative feelings individuals have toward out-group members following anxious intergroup interactions. And since the same type of anxiety that drives people apart in interracial interactions actually brings them closer in same group interactions, the social identity dynamics you describe are likely also strengthened in places where everyday interactions are filled with lots of anxiety (perhaps because of poverty or even just heat). Also, the threat of death makes people much more patriotic and opposed to criticism of their group or government – could this dynamic stifle opposition to corruption in practice despite individuals’ opposition to it in theory?

  5. Thank you all for the comments! I really wanted to write this piece because I travel to India to visit family and work with an NGO nearly every year, and I spend a lot of time thinking about corruption on the individual level. If someone pays a bribe to get their home built, or to have a sick family member seen in a hospital, is that morally wrong? And if a low-level official is soliciting a bribe because his salary can’t feed his family or because he in turn has to give a bribe to his superiors up the chain, then is wrong? The focus on systems of corruption does not answer these often troubling questions about who is wrong, who is right, or who deserves to be fined or prosecuted for participating in a system that they cannot change. All of the comments are great points, and I really hope a social scientist will see this and begin some empirical research!

  6. Greetings Anusha!

    What a nice post! There are certain environments in which corruption seems to have invaded several -if not all- layers of society. I believe that in these situations, individuals no longer see a solution in acting against corruption because they no longer see “the point” in doing so. Legal authorities are no longer trusted, private organizations have limited practical power, and the government is ‘infected’ as well. The only option? To subdue to reality and bend the norm as much as possible, despite pro-social postures, and increase personal gain. Survival of the fittest?

    I am currently in the process of designing my thesis in social and health psychology to investigate how is it that corruption influeces behavior in interdependence situations. The objective is to understand how this “corruption mindset” influences an individual’s decision to cooperate or deflect from cooperating in situations in which collaboration leads to a greater gain for all.

    It would be great if we could communicate to talk some more on the subject. Also, I do not have access to some of the articles you mention throughout your post that might be insightful. Thank you for your time!

    • Hmmm…. You’re right, a lot of the links are now broken. I guess this is the phenomenon they call “webrot.” I went through and tried to find alternative links for as many as I could, though in some cases the original link is no longer working and I can’t trace the original source. I’ll keep at this and see if I can track down any of the other sources. (Unfortunately, Ms. Pamula is no longer a regular blog contributor, so she’s not available to ask for assistance with this.)

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