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Psychology of corruption

By Ma. Regina M. Hechanova
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:56:00 03/15/2008

Filed Under: Government, Graft & Corruption

MANILA, Philippines?We toppled a dictator and thought we had gotten rid of his cronies. Yet four administrations later, the same issues of graft and corruption continue to plague our country. Amid the prospect of history repeating itself?some wonder, will changing presidents really eradicate corruption? Probably not?unless we understand the reasons why corruption continues to exist in the country and we do something about it.

A recent study on the attitudes of Filipinos toward graft and corruption by Ateneo Psychology students Tanya Gisbert, Therese Posas and Karla Santos shed some light on the phenomenon. They interviewed 12 people and surveyed 380 others from income classes A, C and E in Metro Manila from October to December last year.

They asked how people defined corruption, what acts they would consider corrupt, why they think corruption exists and whether they would engage in it. In the survey, respondents were asked to rate corrupt acts in terms of how acceptable they are and the likelihood that they would engage in them.

Form of stealing

Their study found that people commonly defined corruption as some form of stealing. Corrupt acts fall into two types: small scale (those done by individuals as citizens or in a business context) and large scale (those associated with government).

Examples of small-scale acts include paying a police officer to avoid getting a fine and paying off government offices to speed up transactions. In the business setting, corrupt acts could include charging personal expenses to the company and pocketing excess travel allowance.

Large-scale acts are those associated with the government?electoral fraud, kickbacks, getting material things in return for favors, etc. Although the majority of the respondents said that they had not engaged and would not engage in large-scale corrupt acts, there was significantly greater tolerance for small-scale corrupt acts.


Asked why corruption exists, the respondents cited the negative image of our public officials. Some respondents even described corruption as being commonplace or worse as ?being in our blood.?

When asked why one would engage in it, those from class E surmised that perhaps it stemmed out of need or even the survival of one?s family. Those in upper classes cited the difficulty in transacting with government, hence the need to cut corners. As one respondent said, ?It?s already there. So might as well benefit. Why inconvenience myself when there is an easier way to get to it??

An interesting finding of the study is that those from class A have significantly higher scores in acceptance and intent to engage in corrupt acts compared with those in lower classes.

The middle class was the least tolerant of corrupt acts. Related to this, those from lower and middle classes reported feeling victimized by corruption. Many of the respondents complained about seeing their tax payments wasted by nonexistent or poor-quality services. As said by one respondent, ?The barangay captain announced that there would be free medicines and checkups. Nothing was given out allegedly because of budget constraints. Afterwards, he was seen driving a new car and his house was renovated!?

How does one understand these findings? Although corruption can be viewed from many perspectives, corruption can be seen as a learned social phenomenon that is rooted in several psychological concepts:

Vicarious learning

We learn from the actions of others and people have come to associate corruption with the government. Unfortunately, there is so much press coverage of corrupt acts of public officials and very few role models to counteract such stereotypes. This may shape the minds of the young and future leaders into expecting that corruption is acceptable.


Although people decry corruption in government, they also find acts such as paying off fixers to expedite transactions as more acceptable. The problem with this is where does one draw the line between small and large acts? Big acts start with small ones.


People who engage in negative behaviors will typically seek to justify their behaviors so they do not feel conflicted. The responses suggest one strategy used is denial of responsibility?the corrupt act was done only because of the circumstances and that there was no choice. A second justification is denial of injury?the act does not harm anyone and the end justifies the means.


One explanation for the differences in attitudes toward corruption between socioeconomic classes is reinforcement. For those with higher income, the cost of corruption is minor compared with its benefits?the amount paid to a cop is inconsequential in comparison with the hassle of retrieving a confiscated license.

The responses of the middle and lower classes suggest that what is salient to them is how they are being victimized by corruption?seeing how their tax money is being squandered on poor service or officials? personal gain.

Learned helplessness

Despite such anger toward corruption, there also appears to be a sense of helplessness in doing something about it. People seem to believe it is difficult to eradicate corruption precisely because it is those in power who are engaging in it.

What can be done?

Given all the factors that are creating this culture of corruption, what can be done? The Ateneo Center for Organization Research and Development has a framework for culture-building in organizations.

Although the scale is much larger, the elements are applicable as well. The CREATE model stands for Communicate, Role-model, Engage, Align systems and structures, Train and Evaluate. An important part of building a culture is explicitly stating the desired norms. However, such talk needs to be backed up by action.

The problem with President Macapagal-Arroyo?s recent statement that she is also against corruption is that people simply cannot believe her?not when she and her family are associated with controversial deals.

Engagement means bringing different publics together to strategize and implement anticorruption measures. The more the watchdogs there are, the less bold people will be. Alignment of systems, structures and resources means putting in the necessary checks and balances to prevent and prosecute graft and corruption. Training people and institutions to detect and address issues of graft is also important in diminishing the sense of helplessness.

However, value orientation also needs to begin in school and in our homes.

Finally, evaluating anticorruption efforts are important. For example, the country currently ranks 131st out of 179 countries in Transparency International?s 2007 Corruption Perception Index. Improving such ranking will give people some hope that change can happen.

In a UNDP conference against corruption, eminent international thinkers advocated institutional reform, law enforcement and public support as important ingredients in the fight against corruption.

As shown in this study, corruption is a complex phenomenon that has deep psychological and cultural roots. It suggests that beyond the actions of our leaders and institutions, we need to believe that corruption can be eliminated. Such change may take generations and will require a concerted effort?from our family, schools and other institutions. But perhaps more importantly, it requires our commitment to be part of such efforts and be the change we would like to see.

(Ma. Regina M. Hechanova, Ph.D. is an associate professor at the Department of Psychology at the Ateneo de Manila University and a director at the Ateneo Center for Organization Research and Development. For inquiries, contact ateneocord@admu.edu.ph)

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