Lessons of Moral Psychology for Anticorruption Strategy

Most countries attempt to fight public corruption through policies that increase the magnitude and the probability of punishment, on the logic that rational individuals will be deterred from engaging in corrupt acts if the expected costs exceed the expected benefits. This approach is certainly valuable, but it is incomplete, and anticorruption strategies based exclusively on a view of potentially corrupt public officials as “rational actors” are unlikely to be fully effective. This is because human beings are not (only) rational animals, they are also moral animals: As already discussed on this blog (see here and here), the decision-making process of a potentially corrupt public official is influenced not only by her calculation of expected (material) costs and benefits, but also by her moral values and self-image.

In fact, when people act in accordance with their own moral standards, their brain-reward centers are activated, which may explain why individuals value honesty and desire to live ethically at their own eyes. Notwithstanding, even otherwise morally upright subjects can engage in corruption. What do individuals take into account when choosing whether to engage in profitable dishonesty or to maintain their positive self-image by adhering to their moral standards?

A growing stream of research on moral psychology and neuroscience has shown that individuals employ certain psychological mechanisms, such as rationalization, that enable them to cheat at a certain level without considering themselves as “cheaters”; this, in turn, allows them to benefit from the dishonest behavior while not damaging their positive self-image. But when it becomes more difficult for people to justify their unethical behavior to themselves, the likelihood that they will engage in dishonest behavior will decrease. The tendency to engage in dishonest behavior is also affected by individuals’ ability to exercise self-control when facing temptation — that is, by their capacity to subdue their desire to attain short-term benefits in order to achieve long-term goals.

Greater attention to these insights would make possible the design of anticorruption policies tailored both to inhibit the use of rationalizations and to encourage the exertion of self-control when individuals face the opportunity to act dishonestly. For example, public agencies (especially those in corruption-prone sectors like public procurement) could take the following steps: 

  • First, agency leaders could clarify responsibilities and instill in public servants a sense of moral accountability by making it clear that their individual actions, combined with the actions of others, contribute to the corrupt practice—regardless of their formal/traditional legal responsibility.
  • Second, agencies could introduce, in the personnel selection process, tests of integrity aimed at screening candidates not only for competence, but also for ethics, avoiding individuals with traits associated with low moral control/low guilty feelings. (The use of tests of integrity has been discussed previously on this blog hereand here.). In this vein, it is worth mentioning that countries like Indonesia, where integrity tests have been used in the process of screening and selecting personnel for the national anticorruption agency (the KPK), demonstrate that such tests can be useful in identifying subjects intrinsically prone to unethical behavior. Although this kind of measure needs to be cautiously designed and applied (since it can be deemed as offensive to labor rights), its results can be promising in countries that are mired in systemic corruption.
  • Third, agencies should also incorporate periodic ethical training and a code of conduct which offers solutions for everyday ethical dilemmas. This can stimulate self-awareness of moral standards, thus making dishonesty harder to justify. As a consequence, an unethical act in this situation would do more damage to an individual’s self-conception, increasing the psychological cost of dishonesty. Again, it is worth mentioning the example of the Indonesian anti-corruption agency, which has a short but very strict code of ethics that is periodically reviewed and discussed among the leadership and staff. 

These are just some tentative examples of how recognition that humans are moral animals could guide simple and affordable new anti-corruption policies. Given that every anticorruption policy aims at restraining human deviant behavior, an understanding of how the human mind works would seem indispensable in the endeavor of tackling corruption worldwide.

3 thoughts on “Lessons of Moral Psychology for Anticorruption Strategy

  1. Pingback: Lessons of Moral Psychology for Anticorruption Strategy | Matthews' Blog

  2. Many lessons can indeed be harnessed from the field of moral psychology in order to craft intelligent and effective anticorruption interventions. Insights can also be culled from the other social sciences like social psychology (e.g., exploring how corruption can be facilitated or reduced in light of existing organizational structures and inter-personal relationships) and cultural anthropology (e.g., examining how cultural norms in a specific location can be integrated into anticorruption interventions to induce positive bureaucratic values that elicit societal approval).

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