Media Releases

Greased palm psychology: collectivism and bribery

April 5, 2011

TORONTO, ON- Bribery is con­demned in most cul­tures; but it is more com­mon in some coun­tries than in oth­ers. Is pover­ty, polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty, or lax reg­u­la­tion to blame? A new study pub­lished in an upcom­ing issue of Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, a jour­nal of the Asso­ci­a­tion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, sug­gests a sur­pris­ing con­trib­u­tor: Collectivism—a cul­ture that down­plays indi­vid­ual self-deter­mi­na­tion and stress­es inter­de­pen­dence and shared respon­si­bil­i­ty.

“Col­lec­tivism may pro­mote bribery by dif­fus­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty,” says Pro­fes­sor Nina Mazar, who con­duct­ed the study with Pro­fes­sor Pankaj Aggar­w­al, also at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment. Col­lec­tivism may allow indi­vid­u­als to side­step their per­son­al moral­i­ty and do busi­ness in ways they know to be wrong.

To test this hypoth­e­sis, the authors con­duct­ed both a cross-nation­al study and a lab exper­i­ment.

The cross-nation­al study looked at 21 of the world’s most eco­nom­i­cal­ly influ­en­tial coun­tries for cor­re­la­tions between col­lec­tivism and bribery in inter­na­tion­al busi­ness. Col­lec­tivism was rat­ed using an estab­lished inter­na­tion­al sur­vey of some 17,000 cor­po­rate man­agers, who rat­ed the “degree to which indi­vid­u­als express pride, loy­al­ty, and cohe­sive­ness in their orga­ni­za­tions or fam­i­lies” in their coun­tries. Anoth­er instru­ment tal­lied nation­al rates of bribery by ask­ing exec­u­tives how often firms from var­i­ous for­eign coun­tries offered illic­it incen­tives when doing busi­ness in the exec­u­tives’ coun­tries. The researchers fac­tored in the nations’ wealth as well as the extent to which they val­ued proso­cial and eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions.

The study revealed that the poor­er and more col­lec­tivist a coun­try, the more like­ly it was to turn to bribery. Con­trol­ling for wealth and also for moral stan­dards, col­lec­tivism still cor­re­lat­ed “fair­ly strong­ly” with the will­ing­ness to offer pay­ments under the table.

To test causal rela­tion­ships, not just cor­re­la­tions, the researchers con­duct­ed a lab­o­ra­to­ry exper­i­ment. In it, 140 busi­ness stu­dents were divid­ed into two groups and primed with either an indi­vid­u­al­ist or col­lec­tivist mind­set using well-estab­lished manip­u­la­tions.

Then par­tic­i­pants were asked to assume the role of a sales agent com­pet­ing against two oth­er firms for a con­tract with an inter­na­tion­al buy­er, and a com­mis­sion. Would they bribe the buy­er? Hav­ing answered that ques­tion, they rat­ed the degree of respon­si­bil­i­ty they felt for their actions, their desire for the con­tract, inap­pro­pri­ate­ness of the bribe, like­li­hood the com­peti­tors would bribe or that a bribe would win the con­tract. Final­ly, par­tic­i­pants were test­ed for mood and arousal.

As expect­ed, the col­lec­tivists felt less per­son­al­ly account­able and more prone to grease the buyer’s palm. Col­lec­tivist mind­set affect­ed nei­ther mood, moral judg­ment, assess­ment of a bribe’s effec­tive­ness, moti­va­tion, nor any oth­er fac­tor.

Even when the choice to bribe or not was direct­ly assessed — in a sec­ond exper­i­ment with 47 participants—the col­lec­tivist group felt less per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty.

The study sug­gests that the moti­va­tions for cor­rupt busi­ness prac­tices may be viewed too nar­row­ly. Bribery is “not just about the eco­nom­ic costs or ben­e­fits, says Mazar. “‘Soft fac­tors’ like cul­tur­al val­ues might be quite impor­tant.” If we can under­stand them, “we may be able to design more effec­tive and effi­cient mea­sures of pre­ven­tion.”

For the lat­est think­ing on busi­ness, man­age­ment and eco­nom­ics from the Rot­man School of Man­age­ment, vis­it

The Rot­man School of Man­age­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to is redesign­ing busi­ness edu­ca­tion for the 21st cen­tu­ry with a cur­ricu­lum based on Inte­gra­tive Think­ing. Locat­ed in the world’s most diverse city, the Rot­man School fos­ters a new way to think that enables the design of cre­ative busi­ness solu­tions. The School is cur­rent­ly rais­ing $200 mil­lion to ensure Cana­da has the world-class busi­ness school it deserves. For more infor­ma­tion, vis­it


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Ken McGuf­fin
Man­ag­er, Media Rela­tions
Rot­man School of Man­age­ment
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Fol­low Rot­man on Twit­ter @rotmanschool