Corruption “Tells” — An Overlooked Factor in Determining Corruption Perceptions

Last month, the European Commission released a comprehensive report on corruption in the EU, based on two perception surveys (one of the general population and one of businesspeople) as well as existing public data. One of the report’s most striking findings was the prevalence of perceived corruption among the general public: over 75% of Europeans surveyed thought corruption was “widespread” in their country–even in countries where very few respondents had personally experienced or witnessed corruption.

The EU Report is not the first study to find a sizeable gap between people’s perception of corruption’s prevalence and their reported personal experience with corruption.  What explains this gap?  The two most common explanations are: (1) perceptions of corruption overstate true corruption (as perceptions may be swayed by sensationalistic media reports, and perhaps skewed by factors like ethnic heterogeneity and low social engagement, or because of different understandings of what “corruption” means); (2) self-reported experiences with corruption understate true corruption, because people do not respond truthfully to questions about their personal experience even when anonymity is guaranteed.

But there is another possibility, which highlights a limitation of studies that compare only general perceptions of corruption with direct, personal experience with corruption: These surveys typically fail to account for “tells” – observable indications of potential corruption. Continue reading