Background info

Methodology of the U4 Issue on the cognitive psychology of corruption

(Go to U4 Issue The cognitive psychology of corruption)

We carried out a comprehensive literature review on the cognitive psychology of corruption, drawing on literature published in the fields of psychology, political science, political psychology, economics, business, and organisational studies. We used the pre-defined list of terms listed in Table 1 to search for published and unpublished academic and policy works in Google Scholar, Web of Science, JSTOR, ERIC, the World Bank e-library, and Oria (the Norwegian higher education library search engine). We also consulted Matthew Stephenson’s Bibliography on Corruption and Anti-Corruption for references. We read through and coded each publication for relevance in terms of a cognitive psychological approach, focus (topic), and the type and quality of evidence presented.

Search terms used in the comprehensive review

  • Psychology AND corruption
    Change out “corruption” in the above string with the following synonyms: bribery, extortion, nepotism, patronage, clientalism, favouritism, embezzlement, fraud, graft, kickback, money laundering, political corruption, grand corruption, petty corruption.
  • Cognitive psychology AND corruption (replaced with the above synonyms for corruption)
  • Social psychology AND corruption
  • Moral OR ethical decision-making
  • Psychology AND leader AND corruption
  • Decision-making OR judgment AND corruption
  • Cognitive bias AND corruption
  • Norms OR values OR beliefs OR ideas AND corruption
  • Perceptions AND corruption
  • Emotion AND corruption
  • Information OR heuristic OR associations AND corruption
  • Risk OR confidence AND corruption
  • Motivation OR rationalisation AND corruption
  • Learning AND corruption
  • Framing AND corruption

The majority of the references we found are located in six strands of literature that do not always speak to each other. First, economists have long studied corruption as a form of collective action problem, as either a cooperation (prisoner’s dilemma) or coordination problem. 10dfadd06ac5 Corruption is a major concern within the field of economics, given its (generally negative) connection to key economic variables such as economic growth, trade, and investment.

Second, political scientists are also concerned with corruption in work on economic growth, foreign investment, natural resource management, voting behaviour, political development, and international norms diffusion, but curiously very little with the political psychology of corruption among political elites. This is reflected in the relatively few mainstream political science publications that turned up in our search.

Third, the business and organisational psychology literatures examine corruption as an issue of business ethics, with most of the focus on explaining how and why business leaders and employees choose to engage in corrupt behaviour and how corruption is normalised within organisations.

Fourth, a significant body of work exists within psychology, including in political psychology, social psychology, and the psychology of decision-making.

Fifth, the study of corruption appears in the criminology literature in conjunction with explaining illegal and deviant behaviours like fraud, but also understanding why corruption occurs in the police force.

Finally, the emerging cross-disciplinary corruption studies field has begun to focus more on individual-level explanations for corruption such as psychological factors, most notably examining the role of social norms in sustaining systemic corruption.

To generate more references, we could have broadened the search criteria to include terms such as “unethical behaviour,” but we felt that this stretched too far beyond the concept of corruption since it would include both corrupt and non-corruption behaviours. We thus kept our search narrowly confined to corruption.

An additional challenge is that while there is much theorising about how cognitive processes might shape negative behaviours like corruption, the existing empirical evidence base to support these theories is quite thin. The empirical base generally consists of either laboratory experiments or attitudinal data in the form of surveys. To our knowledge, no process tracing or case studies of individuals (including use of interviews or discourse analysis) have been carried out to try to identify particular cognitive psychological mechanisms that might influence corrupt acts.

  1. Google Scholar returns 1.86 million hits on the search term “corruption”. Just over half (11) of the top twenty results are published in economics journals, while the remaining nine are political science publications.