Media Releases

Collectivism and bribery

October 5, 2011

The more collective feeling in a society, the more its members are likely to offer bribes, University of Toronto professors discover

TORONTO, ON — Why are some places more prone to bribery and cor­rup­tion than oth­ers? Part of the answer seems to be the lev­el of col­lec­tive feel­ing in a soci­ety, accord­ing to research by Pankaj Aggar­w­al, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough (UTSC) pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing in the Depart­ment of Man­age­ment, and Nina Mazar, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing.

Aggar­w­al and Mazar dis­cov­ered that peo­ple in more col­lec­tivist cul­tures – in which indi­vid­u­als see them­selves as inter­de­pen­dent and as part of a larg­er soci­ety – are more like­ly to offer bribes than peo­ple from more indi­vid­u­al­is­tic cul­tures. Their work sug­gests that peo­ple in col­lec­tivist soci­eties may feel less indi­vid­u­al­ly respon­si­ble for their actions, and there­fore less guilty about offer­ing a bribe.

In their paper to be pub­lished in an upcom­ing issue of the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, the researchers used data from a group called Trans­paren­cy Inter­na­tion­al, which rat­ed the ten­den­cy of busi­ness peo­ple from 22 dif­fer­ent coun­tries to offer bribes to for­eign busi­ness part­ners. They com­pared this with scores from anoth­er exist­ing study that rat­ed how col­lec­tivist each of those coun­tries was. And final­ly they adjust­ed for the wealth of each coun­try.

Adjust­ed for wealth, the degree of col­lec­tivism in a coun­try pre­dict­ed just how like­ly a busi­ness per­son was to offer a bribe to a busi­ness part­ner.

It’s not that those busi­ness peo­ple saw bribes as accept­able – oth­er sur­veys have shown that bribery is wide­ly seen as moral­ly repug­nant across cul­tures. To fig­ure out what was hap­pen­ing, the researchers turned to the lab­o­ra­to­ry.

They brought in 140 busi­ness stu­dents, and first had them do a word search task, cir­cling pro­nouns in a writ­ten vignette. In one ver­sion, the sto­ry con­tains sin­gu­lar pro­nouns (I, me, my), in the oth­er plur­al (we, us, our). Pre­vi­ous research shows that the task with the plur­al pro­nouns “primes” peo­ple to feel more inter­con­nect­ed and col­lec­tivist, at least for a while.

Imme­di­ate­ly after the word search task, the stu­dents were asked to imag­ine that they were sales agents com­pet­ing against two oth­er firms for a con­tract from an inter­na­tion­al buy­er, and asked whether they would offer a bribe. Fifty-eight per­cent of the stu­dents who had been primed with the col­lec­tivist task said that they would offer a bribe, com­pared with 40 per­cent who had been primed with the indi­vid­u­al­ist word task.

All of the par­tic­i­pants still thought that bribery was wrong, accord­ing to a ques­tion­naire they filled out. But the col­lec­tivist-primed stu­dents saw them­selves as much less per­son­al­ly respon­si­ble for offer­ing the bribe.


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Pankaj Aggar­w­al
UTSC, Depart­ment of Man­age­ment