News / USA

Corruption: It's Easier Than You Think

(AP Illustration/Shazna Nessa)
(AP Illustration/Shazna Nessa)
When I lived in Cambodia, I got into a lot of fights. I’d protest the fruit seller who was overcharging me for mangoes because I was American. I’d wave my hands at the police officer who fined me for driving on the correct side of the road. I’d get angry with doctors at the “free” clinic for charging poor patients for drugs.

My Cambodian boyfriend usually just watched and shook his head.

But when we went to the Justice Ministry to get papers for his U.S. visa application, he told me not to fight. Not this time. Just go with it, he said, as he handed money to the clerk to get his papers the same day.

It made me wonder, why do people accept corruption that’s exploiting them? Why defend a government that runs off bribes or nepotism?

“We rationalize the status quo because it reassures us that things are under control and we’re going to be able to have a predictable life,” says Justin Friesen, a doctoral candidate at Ontario’s University of Waterloo and co-author of “Why Do People Defend Unjust, Inept and Corrupt Systems,” published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

“People have psychological needs to feel good about themselves. Nobody likes to be criticized. Nobody likes their group to be criticized," he says. "Because of this, people will often rationalize and defend the systems they belong to and the status quo they belong to.”

In Cambodia, that might mean paying an extra “service charge” to power company officials to make sure your lights stay on. In the United States, it could mean staying silent when your coworkers are overcharging clients or lying on their timesheets to earn money for hours they didn’t work.

Basically, people want to keep things calm. And if you’re not protesting the problem, the likelihood that you’re a part of it grows.

According to Lamar Pierce, associate professor at the Washington University in St. Louis, two major factors contribute to corruption: Economic motivation and self-serving biases.

“If taking bribes are a function of how much you can feed your kid, then often that is the overwhelming motivator,” Pierce says of the first factor.

But the second factor, to which we all fall prey, is more complex.

“If people are able to convince themselves quite irrationally that what they’re doing is really okay, it’s not their fault, it’s not hurting anyone, that they’re not going to get caught, that’s where you get situations like the subprime crisis,” he says, referring to the U.S. financial crisis in which profit-hungry lenders approved mortgage loans to people who couldn’t afford them.

It’s even easier for people to ignore the desire to be good if they cheat “by a little bit” rather than to the maximum extent possible, according to Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and the author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan.

“By seeing other people around us cheat, especially when those people are our co-workers or peers, we are more likely to cheat ourselves,” she adds, describing dishonesty as “contagious.”

So where do we draw the line? Pierce says it starts with asking a simple question. “How would you feel talking to your mom about this at dinner?”

“The very simple metrics that people intuitively tend to do are very helpful as a first-line defense,” Pierce says.

The second-line defense? Ask yourself about the consequences of your actions.

“Is there an ethical component to this? Who is this going to harm? Who is this going to benefit? Is it going to violate any rules?"

It's a five to 10-second check, Pierce says, that can mean the difference between right and wrong.

Everybody has their own perception of what is corruption and what is an acceptable "service charge" for goods and services delivered.

What do you think? Take our short polls to see how your perceptions measure up to our other readers. 

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Comment Sorting
by: Marco from: Brazil
December 10, 2012 7:51 AM
Everything you do do make things "easyer" for you is corruption. I meant, when you give money to escape from a big line, for instance. Remember, your beloved parents could be in that line.
We do not have to do tips to people from public services. They are there to do that, and we pay high taxes to the goverment.

by: Peter
December 09, 2012 3:25 AM
It's always interesting to see that most americans see corruption as something distant that only exists in foreign countries. Wherever there are humans, there will be corruption, however this pretense that corruption doesn't exist in the US has created a situation where we are just as corrupt as everyone else, yet few of us have any opportunities to participate in the corruption in a way that actually benefits anyone. Instead corruption is an activity reserved for a privileged elite.

by: D Kinston from: Melbourne, Australia
December 08, 2012 5:41 PM
No mention of the overwhelming reason we tolerate corruption in our neighbourhood or workplace. Why would I comment on someone billing for hours he didn't do - when doing so will rebound on me big time and almost certainly do nothing to solve the problem?

by: francesco from: Roma
December 06, 2012 1:54 PM
Corruption in a country and in the companies have the same effects of hard drugs on humans
Budgets out of control, high taxes, bureaucracy are the different sides of the same coin: corruption and tax evasion.. Corruption in a country and in the companies have the same effects of hard drugs on humans .. At the beginning in humans the drug makes them dream, make them thinking they can achieve incredible performance, make them thinking to dominate others and then slowly bring to make them incapable, reduce their will , until makes them disappear .. , In the same way in the companies corruption .. at the beginning increase revenues but decrease competitiveness, increase market share but weaken the ability to improve their products, allow to hire people but weaken the quality of management until slowly they go out of the market .. but not before having also also damaged and contaminated the social and productive system that had hosted them , demotivated the most capable and professional people and inexorably destroyed the image and economic and social potential of the whole system of the country. To heal our country should therefore be approved an anti-corruption law that is more effective, preventive and punitive of the laws that contradict the drug market ..

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