The Psychology of Corruption

A few hundred rupees for the government ambulance to get your sick grandmother to the hospital in time; some extra shillings to your local school administrator to ensure your child is admitted to the best school; and a couple dollars to appease the police officer so you are not late for your important meeting, each seem easy to rationalize. “Popular and policy accounts,” Dr. David Halpern, Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team said in his statement in the U.K. Anti-Corruption Manifesto, “can often misread why people ‘cheat,’ and what might reduce this cheating. When viewing corruption by others, we often assume that it is driven by self-interest and done by inherently bad people.”

However, the study of behavioral economics and the psychology behind corruption tells a very different story. Most corrupt acts are not committed by those whom we would likely picture as bad people, certainly not with knowing the specific contexts and rationalization behind a corrupt act. More often than not, corruption is a tale of “protagonists of these behaviors [that] gradually slide into habits, without thinking of them as wrongdoings.”

Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics and psychology at Duke University, calls this the fudge factor – “an ability to rationalize some dishonesty [where] as long as we cheat just a little bit, we can still rationalize it.”

Ariely’s conclusions from speaking with big cheaters and prisoners highlights this. “If you thought that crime or dishonesty is driven by a cost-benefit analysis, then you have some very basic solutions – for example, put people in prison.” What he found was that most ‘cheaters’ or criminals hardly considered the long term consequences of their actions – and thus would likely not be deterred by long prison sentences – because they never expected to end there. Public policy, as it stands, does not account for the process by which people become dishonest.

The average person does not set out to take a series of corrupt actions; rather, they likely just start with one small step. It begins with one step that they can rationalize. With each step, they became a slightly different person: they begin to view situations much differently and have a different opinion of dishonesty.

As Halpern proposes, “tackling corruption requires a better understanding of: human decision making and what influences it; the psychology of honesty; the role of technology as an enabler of new behaviours; and the prevalent social capital – the pattern of social networks, obligations and trust in a region, including aspects of social trust that have formed over decades and centuries.”

Halpern’s firm, the Behavioural Insights Team, is working with the British Government to explore how insights from behavioral science can be applied to a variety of contexts relevant to anti-corruption, including honesty, impartiality, and ways to catalyze new, positive social norms.

Stephanie Bandyk is a former Program Assistant with Global Programs at CIPE.