Honesty and Corruption: What Social Psychology Knows and What Most of us Miss?

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In my previous post, I shared my views on contribution of culture towards promotion of compliance. Now I would like to elaborate on this topic further, and share with you the results of some social psychology theories and experiments together with my views on how it might contribute to promotion and development of ethics and compliance in our business and society.

When discussing changes in Ukraine, we frequently hear about “faulty system” that makes people give and take bribes, promotes unethical and illegal behavior. We are so afraid of this big, immense, and invisible monster that we simply do not know how to approach it. So, what is this mysterious “system”? What does it consist of? These are only basic questions to address in order to crack it.

I would rather provide the following answer: a system is a grouping of interconnected parts and their relationships. If we further simplify it and put in our context – our “system” consists of individuals and interactions between people in different circumstances and situations. I am going to illustrate such interactions by the virtue of social psychology.

What amazed me: a number of experiments proved that trait theory (claiming that “traits are aspects of personality that are relatively stable over time, differ across individuals, are relatively consistent over situations, and influence behavior.”) is not working. As appeared from the studies, peoples’ traits are not fundamental and behavioral consistency across situations and across time is not the rule.

In particular, Good Samaritans test showed that external factor like being in a hurry predicted a person’s behavior more than their supposed character traits, and thinking about norms does not imply that one will act on them.

Hartshorne and May studies in the nature of character detected that honesty is not a fundamental trait, because it is considerably influenced by the situation. In particular, children could be honest to their classmate, while being dishonest to their parents, or they could resist a temptation to steal, but they could lie to help their friends. The most powerful predictor of children’s behavior was what other children around them were doing.

Another concept we should look at is a fundamental attribution error, also known as an attribution effect, which shows that “in contrast to interpretations of their own behavior, people tend to (unduly) emphasize the agent's internal characteristics (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people's behavior. This effect has been described as "the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are".

In Milgram experiment psychologists measured willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a "learner. These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real.” The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of participants would reluctantly, but fully, obey the instructions that demonstrates that societies might easily switch to violence under impact of authority.

Stanford prison experiment is a social psychology experiment to investigate psychological effects of perceived power, where volunteers were randomly assigned to be either "guards" or "prisoners" in a mock prison. It demonstrated that the simulated-prison situation, rather than individual personality traits, caused the participants' behavior. It appeared that a particular situation could lead to a fast and essential change of person’s personality. The results are compatible with those of the Milgram experiment, where random participants complied with orders to administer seemingly dangerous and potentially lethal electric shocks.

These are not the results most of us expected, right?

However, what really inspires me is a minority influence theory, which demonstrates that minorities can influence a majority when they behave in certain ways. Such major changes as democracy, market economy and gender equality, which sometimes ago were just ambiguous ideas, were brought by the minority. It demonstrates that in order to make a change one could start even from the smallest step and consistently follow the way. With each further step, our faith in success will increase and will provide motivation for further and more impactful actions.

The above examples show why it is so crucial to deal with the environment and put the emphasis on tackling rout causes of corruption and preventive actions by creating situations and circumstances without corruptive factors. I also believe that structural reforms (implementation of Prozorro, opening access to state registers, etc.) are more effective than reforms directly related to anti-corruption (creation of the anti-corruption court).

Conclusion for the business is rather straightforward: you should not rely on employee’s traits, because people tend to be impacted by circumstances. To eliminate negative consequences of this impact, it is better to focus on creating appropriate procedures, environment and culture.

In order to make a change, either in society, or in business, we should not be afraid of the system and may start with small steps and action to create a proper environment. Fundamental changes do not happen overnight, changing the environment is a marathon, not a sprint. So, be patient on the way and stay compliant!  

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Volodymyr Grabchak is a legal counsel with an international FMCG company, responsible, inter alia for anti-corruption compliance issues in Ukraine and Moldova. He got his law degree in Ukraine and LL.M. degree in the Netherlands. 

Volodymyr is attorney at law admitted to Ukrainian Bar and a member of the International Bar Association (IBA).