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The psychology of corruption

My son wants to live in another country because he says corruption is endemic here,” says Ron (not his real name). “We want him to work in our family business but he says he wants to be in New Zealand where the system works. We cannot stop him. Why are we so prone to corruption? You teach in college, so what do you tell your students about this?”

My reply:

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Societal corruption is not something I discuss in class, though students bring up the issue, usually in a resigned or indignant way. But we take the time to discuss the college equivalent of corruption, which is cheating.

What I tell my students is that if they cheat during exams, they cheat themselves and also their parents who are working hard to ensure that they have a good education. Character is doing the right thing even if no one is looking, I add.

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Majority of them will never cheat, I say, but the few who do make it harder for everyone, since teachers have to more strongly counteract those who try to game the system.

I also don’t make it easy for students to cheat. In online learning, routine quizzes for easily-cribbed answers are minimized in favor of oral exams through Zoom.

Students say, however, that if they really want to cheat, they probably won’t get caught. Sadly, they may be right.

My philosophy and theology colleagues are better placed to discuss the ethics of corruption, so I will use psychology to try to make sense of it instead, drawing mainly from the work of Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.

Ariely ran a series of experiments on the reporting results of rolled dice and earning money based on these. In reality, participants could lie about outcomes to get more money, and some were offered the chance to pay bribes in the hopes of earning more.

Human nature reared its ugly head even if the amounts involved were small (the bribe cost $2).

“Bribe-exposed participants cheated more than [others],” say Ariely and Ximena Garcia-Rada, a doctoral candidate of marketing at Harvard Business School in “Contagious Dishonesty,” published in Scientific American in 2019.

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“Receiving a bribe request erodes individuals’ moral character, prompting them to behave more dishonestly in subsequent ethical decisions,” they added.

These studies show that corruption spreads primarily through exposure, until it becomes endemic, as your son puts it.

“Bribery is like a contagious disease,” say Ariely and Garcia-Rada, “it spreads quickly among individuals, often by mere exposure, and as time passes it becomes harder and harder to control. This is because social norms—the patterns of behavior that are accepted as normal—impact how people will behave in many situations, including those involving ethical dilemmas … Knowing that others are paying bribes to obtain preferential treatment makes people feel that it is more acceptable to pay a bribe themselves. Similarly, thinking that others believe that paying a bribe is acceptable will make people feel more comfortable when accepting a bribe request. Bribery becomes normative, affecting people’s moral character.”

The problem lies in sociopolitical systems. For example, if citizens witness that those in authority suffer no consequences when flaunting quarantine rules, they will find it harder to comply with these.

In countries such as New Zealand and Singapore, the system works much better than ours. Not surprisingly, these nations have been managing the pandemic more effectively since last year.

“Although individuals’ innate tendencies to behave honestly or otherwise are similar across countries,” say Ariely and Garcia-Rada, “social norms and legal enforcement … are key factors in shaping ethical behavior.”

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” via Lazada and the ebook version on Amazon, Google Books and Apple Books. Contact the author at [email protected]

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TAGS: All in the Family, Corruption, queena n. lee-chua
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