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Psychology of the Corrupt

It is said that everyone has their price, but what makes a cop accept a bribe, a procurement officer dish out a tender to his friend, or a school governing body cook the institution's books? Clinical psychologist Dr Giada Del Fabbro, criminologist Dr Elisabeth Grobler, and Rhodes University organisational psychology lecturer Alwyn Moerdyk examine the motivations that push people down this treacherous road. The triggers are many, it seems.

It's your personality

It is difficult and perhaps counter-intuitive to put people in boxes with neat little labels to explain their behaviour, but there are some personality traits that make the slide into corrupt behaviour easier. According to Del Fabbro, these characteristics include :

Impaired empathy – individuals struggle to put themselves in the shoes of another or understand how their actions may affect the wellbeing of someone else;

Self-centeredness – individuals prioritise their own needs over those of others;

Manipulation – individuals deceptively influence systems or other people's perceptions;

Entitlement – individuals believe that they deserve to succeed or have their needs met more than others and that they deserve special treatment; and,

The tendency to project blame on to others – individuals avoid taking responsibility for their actions.

Moerdyk notes that other characteristics associated with corruption involve: thrill-seeking behaviour, social conformity, the need for instant gratification, risk-taking behaviour, and a strong need for power.

Greed versus need

In her dissertation on public sector corruption, Grobler notes that human beings are innately greedy. Some people can contain the urge for self-enrichment and instant gratification; others cannot. Those who constantly feel the need to accumulate wealth may take any opportunity to do so. When it comes to corrupt public officials, if there is a prospect for self-gratification, they are likely to grab it with both hands unless they are monitored closely. Grobler believes that there is a lack of monitoring and accountability in governments, opening up the potential for corruption.

Yet she also points out that corruption is often committed to supplementing an inadequate income, especially among lower-paid public servants. The dichotomy is money-for-greed versus money-for-need.

Sharing is caring

Think corrupt individual, and labels like self-centred and financial motivation spring to mind. But security specialist Bruce Schneier, who's written on the psychology of fraud, has a different view. He says some experts believe that people commit acts of corruption and fraud because humans like each other. Because we are fond of one another, especially of people with whom we can identify, goes the reasoning, we do not see our actions in this relationship as unethical. For example, a municipal procurement officer awards a tender to his friend – the officer and his friend like each other, they relate to one another, and on the basis of this friendship and loyalty, they do not see their actions as corrupt.

It may seem a bit touchy-feely, but it explains the existence of webs of corrupt individuals bound together. It is never a lone person who benefits; there are always groups of people who gain. Moerdyk states that certain cultural values, such as the "need for sharing and caring", may lead to pressure to behave corruptly. "The propensity of corruption may lie in the need of certain people to share and care (or perhaps more accurately, to be seen to share and care), as much as it may be traced to greed, a sense of entitlement and the need to be seen as successful," he says.

Blame the parents
Del Fabbro notes that an individual's morality and ethics are based on the process of socialisation as well as on modelling and education from parents or caregivers – in essence, we learn behaviour at the knee of our parents and teachers. The sentiment is echoed by the former chief psychologist in India's public service commission, Dr NP Upadhyay.

Corruption, Upadhyay says, is an anti-social activity learned through poor parenting.

"Everyone's personality is a creation of his or her family. Family provides a framework within which human beings may find roots, continuity and a sense of belonging. Parents serve as the first socialising agents. Especially, the sound family environment always persists disciplines, moral and obedience lessons. Mainly, such diversified effective lessons impart good manners, corruption-free minds, and an acquired integrated personality," Upadhyay points out.

But he and Del Fabbro agree that a person's moral and ethical development can be disturbed by dire social and economic circumstances in which personal survival is prioritised above everything else.

And what of the attitudes of the public that allow corruption? The culture of corruption has had devastating effects on South Africa's economy and has rattled public confidence in key institutions, but the worst effect will be on future generations who will grow up to believe that paying a bribe to a police officer is acceptable or that buying their driving licence is okay.

                                          -By Kavisha Pillay

Venugopal Bandlamudi
                         M.A., B.Ed.

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