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.