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Oh Good: People Are More Likely to 'Abruptly' Become Corrupt, Study Finds

Many believe that the corruption of a person occurs gradually, becoming more severe over a period of time. A new study says otherwise.
Photo by Jaki Portolese via Stocksy

One need only look to Wall Street's torrid past to see the potential for corruption in America. Dishonest and unethical acts done for personal gain can range in scale and severity, from potential acts of political insider trading to entire nations that are controlled by corrupt rulers. Corruption may occur on a smaller scale as well, with everyday Americans seizing opportunities to abuse whatever power they have for their own gain.


A series of new studies compiled in a report, "The Road to Bribery and Corruption: Slippery Slope or Steep Cliff?" suggest that, given the opportunity, people are likely to perform corrupt acts such as bribery, if the opportunity arises abruptly. In the review, the researchers, led by Nils C. Köbis of the University of Amsterdam, explain that scientists have long thought that corruption occurs gradually, worsening over a period of time. However, Köbis found that people are actually more likely to participate in corruption if the chance to do so comes as a one-time opportunity. "The odds of abrupt severe bribery were 4.82 times higher compared with the odds of gradual severe bribery," the study reads.

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For instance, students who participated in their experiments were given a certain amount of imaginary funds. One group was presented with the opportunity to make a one-time bribe that would result in their acquisition of significantly more money immediately. Other students were presented with the opportunity to make a smaller series of bribes that would increase their funds gradually, over time. The first group was more likely to take advantage of the opportunity, defying widely-held beliefs about the gradual nature of corruption. The researchers explain that this may be due to the idea that participating in behavior one knows to be unethical is psychologically burdensome, and thus it is easier to live with and rationalize a single corrupt act.

According to Köbis, people often perceive these sort of dishonest gainful opportunities to be victimless, or rationalize the behavior to see it as being harmless. However, "there is always a victim of corruption," Köbis explains in an interview with Broadly. "That can range from concretely identifiable victims like [another, honest] company that was fairly bidding for the contract to more abstract victims like the society as a whole." Because people who commit corruption "might never actually see the victim… the victim might not even know that corruption occurred and therefore not press charges against the perpetrator," Köbis says. In addition to this process of rationalization, people may be more likely to engage in corrupt behavior "if they think that others are doing it as well," he adds.

The United States has just experienced an intense exchange of political power that has some concerned about corruption in our own government. This study's findings may be disturbing, considering how easy it may be for people to choose corruption. Köbis says many countries deal with corruption, and "the question that needs to be answered for each country is whether the degree of corruption has increased."

"Empirical research and (investigative) journalism like the Panama Papers are two ways to expose corrupt practices and increase accountability," he adds.