Monday, October 29, 2012

We are more likely to bribe than I am

There is a variant of the golden rule that says “Whoever has the gold, rules.”  This power of money comes from its ability to grease the wheels in government and business.  Some of these uses of money are legally sanctioned (like the rampant lobbying in Washington, DC) and some are not (like outright bribery).  But there is a long history of people using money to get access to power.

On the other side, though, there is a moral argument against buying influence and power.  In her book, The Purchase of Intimacy, sociologist Viviana Zelizer points out that there are many kinds of relationships that we feel reluctant to trade against currency.  Societies make it taboo to trade money for sex, because we do not want there to be a strict monetary value for close relationships.  Likewise, there is a moral value against purchasing access to power.  People who are governing are supposed to be focused on the good of the people.  At the point where there is a monetary value on governing, leadership becomes just another commodity to be bought and sold.

Because there is a moral dimension to bribery, someone willing to offer a bribe has to overcome the fear and guilt that come with overstepping a moral norm.  Psychologically, this involves some kind of moral disengagement. That is, a person willing to offer a bribe has to find a way not to see bribery as a strong moral violation.

Nina Mazar and Pankaj Aggarwal explored a cultural factor that can create this moral disengagement in a paper in the July, 2011 issue of Psychological Science. 

Anthropologists and cultural psychologists have explored dimensions along which cultures differ.  One of the important dimensions is individualism vs. collectivism.  Western cultures (like the United States) tend to be quite individualist.  They focus on individual responsibility.  In contrast, East Asian cultures tend to be collectivist.  They focus on the good of the group and the relationships between people rather than on the individual.

These authors suggest that members of collectivist cultures may find it easier to offer bribes, because they are more likely to be focused on relationships between people rather than individual responsibility.

First, they did a simple correlational study.  They related the data from the Bribe Payers Index collected by Transparency International (which rates how likely it is that companies from different countries offer bribes) to measures of the collectivism of those cultures and to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the countries.

As you might expect, companies from wealthier countries are less likely to offer bribes than companies from poorer countries.  This reflects that companies from poorer countries are more desperate to do business than those from richer countries.  After controlling for wealth, though, companies from countries with a collectivist culture are far more likely to offer bribes than companies from countries with an individualist culture.

To test the psychological mechanisms involved in this effect, the authors examined this issue experimentally.  In one study, half the participants were induced to think about themselves as individuals (by searching for the pronouns I and me in paragraphs), while others were induced to think of themselves as members of a group (by searching for the pronouns we and our in paragraphs). 

After this participants read a scenario in which they were a salesman at a company trying to close a big deal with a client.  They were asked whether they would offer a bribe to the client.  Among other questions, they were also asked how much individual responsibility they would feel for their actions. 

In this study, 58% of people primed to think collectively were willing to offer bribes, while only 40% of those primed to think individually were willing to offer bribes.  This difference between groups reflected that people primed to think collectively felt less individual responsibility for their actions than those primed to think individually. 

Of course, there is plenty of bribery even in individualist cultures.  In this study, 40% of people who were primed to think individually still offered a bribe.  And bribery scandals in the US are common.  In the end, there are many forms of moral disengagement.  Collectivist thinking provides just one way to avoid individual responsibility.