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:  Continue reading