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Source: University of Waikato

At a cost of around US$2.6 trillion per year, or 5% of global GDP, corruption has severe negative impacts on societies and is an international problem.

From campaign fraud to the misuse of entrusted power for personal gain, corrupt individuals can be found the world over.

To date psychological research has emphasised the impact of norms on corrupt behaviour, finding individuals are more inclined to misuse entrusted power if they believe corruption is prevalent and accepted in their social context.

However, this account might not apply in contexts of endemic corruption where it is highly prevalent but disapproved. Moreover, certain individuals are also more likely to engage in corrupt conduct than their peers who may live in the same context of high corruption, which illustrates that corrupt behaviour is influenced by individual differences.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers conducted six studies in Brazil, a high-corruption context, to better understand the key ideologies and worldviews that might explain individuals’ motivation to engage in corruption.

The results indicate corrupt intention and attitudes toward corrupt people are not strongly associated, confirming these independent aspects of corruption and can coexist.

“People might condemn corrupt people but at the same time be willing to engage in corrupt conduct, and vice versa,” says Professor Taciano Milfont from the University of Waikato, one of the researchers involved in the research.

“The results further indicate that while attitudes toward corrupt people are guided by motivational goals of social control and security, corrupt intention is guided by motivational goals of power and dominance.”

Those who endorse statements such as “Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups” and “Group equality should not be our primary goal” are more likely to engage in corrupt conduct.

And those who endorse statements such as “What our country really needs is a tough, harsh dose of law and order” and “The real keys to the ‘good life’ are respect for authority and obedience to those who are in charge” tend to have more negative attitudes toward corrupt people.

“Our findings indicate that having negative attitudes toward corrupt people does not prevent individuals engaging in corrupt conduct, and becoming corrupt themselves. This paradox has important implications for research and public policies.”

Prof Milfont says previous research assumed that people’s willingness to engage in corruption was linked to a positive view of corrupt people, but the findings show this is not necessarily the case. He also notes that, given the connection between support for anti-egalitarian positions and greater corrupt intent, social-political programs addressing inequality are key in tackling corruption.

Publication of the findings in this prestigious journal of the American Psychological Society should be highlighted because the article focuses on the Brazilian context and it is one of the few published in the journal whose authors are all Brazilians. Prof Milfont contributed with the research but it was led by Felipe Vilanova and Ângelo Brandelli Costa at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.