Corruption Is Contagious

Imagine that you go to City Hall for a construction permit to renovate your house. The employee who receives your form says that, because of the great number of applications the office has received, the staff will take up to nine months to issue the permit. But if you give her $100, your form will make it to the top of the pile. You realize she has just asked for a bribe: an illicit payment to obtain preferential treatment. A number of questions are likely to go through your head. Will I pay to speed things up? Would any of my friends or relatives do the same? You would probably not wonder, however, whether being exposed to the request would, in and of itself, affect a subsequent ethical decision. That is the kind of question behavioral researchers ask to investigate how corruption spreads.

The extent of bribery is hard to measure, but estimates from the World Bank suggest that corrupt exchanges involve $1 trillion annually. In 2018 Transparency International reported that more than two thirds of 180 countries it surveyed got a score of less than 50 on a scale from 0 (“highly corrupt”) to 100 (“very clean”). Major scandals regularly make global headlines, such as when Brazilian construction company Odebrecht admitted in 2016 to having paid upward of $7oo million in bribes to politicians and bureaucrats in 12 countries. But petty corruption, involving small favors between a few people, is also very common. Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer for 2017 shows that one in every four of those surveyed said they had paid a bribe when accessing public services in the previous year, with almost one in three reporting such payments in the Middle East and North Africa.

Corruption, big or small, impedes the socioeconomic development of nations. It affects economic activities, weakens institutions, interferes with democracy and erodes the public’s trust in government officials, politicians and their neighbors. Understanding the underlying psychology of bribery could be crucial to tackling the problem. Troublingly, our studies suggest that mere exposure to corruption is corrupting. Unless preventive measures are taken, dishonesty can spread stealthily and uninvited from person to person like a disease, eroding social norms and ethics—and once a culture of cheating and lying becomes entrenched, it can be difficult to dislodge…. [ ]

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