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May 3, 2010

Our Perception of Corruption

Why are we outraged to hear about a bully picking on an innocent child yet learning about multinational corporations bribing corrupt government officials elicits only a yawning “business as usual” reaction? An article by a trio of South American scholars published in the International Journal of Psychology Research offers some insight.

The authors, Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, Isaac de León-Beltrán, and Muricio Rubio, work from neurological research that examines activity in the brain while it is performing certain tasks. One of the findings of neurological researchers is that many of our behaviors— many more than previously thought—spring from our instincts rather than from what we think of as our reasoning processes. These findings are changing the foundational constructs of some of our social sciences; for example, the “rational person” assumption of economics is coming under increasing scrutiny. But the authors here are interested in our perception of corruption. What they conclude is that our inability to perceive corruption as “reprehensible behavior” stems from the lack of certain factual conditions necessary to trigger such an emotional response. The authors point out that campaigns aimed at preventing corruption often try to teach people how to connect corruption with its deleterious effect on society as a whole. The problem with this strategy, they say, is that it requires people to make “complex causal links” for which they may not have the training. Only when corruption can be shown to harm goods and services close to them do people tend to make the connection. Looking into research involving neurological mechanisms referred to as “mirror neurons,” along with psychological mechanisms called “Theory of the Minds,” they explain the basis for this disconnect. Mirror neurons allow us to experience a sort of vicarious distress when we become aware of the pain or discomfort of others. So violent crimes that hurt other human beings trigger negative feelings, such as regret or aversion. Likewise, Theory of the Minds allows us to infer the mental states of others; we assume that something that would hurt us would hurt another person.

But in order for these processes to work, there must be another person who is being harmed by the act in question. This is where the difficulty of causal links comes in. Learning about an act that harms society as a whole does not trigger in the observer an acute emotional response because, without engaging in extensive analysis, no discrete victim is identified. As the authors put it, “acts of public corruption are similar [to] hitting a tree” rather than a person. And, unfortunately for those pointing out the connection between the act of corruption and the suffering of individuals, careful argument is no match for the emotional impact triggered through these physiological processes. Marketers have understood this for years—this is why marketing strategies are designed to appeal to our emotions rather than to convince us by argument or logic that we need things they are selling. The authors conclude that in the case of the crime of corruption, it is important to show the victims and the causal links between the crime and those victims.

Elizabeth Spahn is a law professor at New England Law | Boston who studies international corruption. Spahn recently spoke about her area of expertise at a symposium entitled “Combating Global Corruption” at Georgetown Law School. In her talk, based on an article that will appear in the Georgetown Journal of International Law, she focused on the human consequences of bribery. Because bribery is used to circumvent regulations and bypass normal vetting processes for the production of goods and services, Professor Spahn points out that it has a prominent role in a number of international incidents implicating human suffering. It provides an entree into markets for transnational criminal organizations and sets the stage for organized crimes such as human trafficking and trade in wildlife and animal parts. Breaking down regulatory barriers leads to low quality-control products such as contaminated toothpaste, fake baby milk formula, toxic toys and poisoned pet food. Because not all regulations circumvented by bribes are merely bureaucratic; some are related to quality control. One study concluded that corruption reduces pollution control. It also had a role in the Yanacocha Mine mercury spill. Spahn’s non-exhaustive list goes on.

Although it may not be obvious without some observation and analysis, corruption has devastating human costs. The fight against corruption is made more difficult by limitations in our perception of the crime brought on by our physiological make-up. But if marketers can employ strategies to appeal to this aspect of our humanness to sell us products, surely those battling corruption can learn to make the same connections to invoke the outrage to fit the crime. In her presentation at Georgetown, Professor Spahn drew specific links between corruption and individual suffering. In the battle against international corruption, Elizabeth Spahn gets it. And she’s working to ensure that the rest of the world will soon get it too.

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