A series of 6 studies in Brazil found that people oriented towards social dominance are more willing to engage in corruption and are more likely to see the world as a competitive jungle, in which people ruthlessly struggle for survival. People with pronounced right-wing authoritarian views were more likely to have negative attitudes towards corrupt people and more prone to perceive the world as dangerous and threatening, but were not more willing to engage in corrupt behavior. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Corruption, “the misuse of entrusted power for private gain” is widespread around the world. Its impact depletes national wealth, enhances inequalities and undermines the political system. However, the scientific study of corruption is not a straightforward issue. While some studies have tried to study corruption by observing minor dishonest behaviors, later studies have shown that these are not really representative of large-scale corrupt behaviors.
Researchers have hypothesized that acceptance of corruption will be linked to higher presence of corruption, but studies in countries with high corruption levels have found that even officials who do not support corrupt behavior, must accept that it is present, thus watering down the association between these two factors.
Study author Felipe Vilanova and his colleagues wanted to study how ideology and worldviews predict corruption. They examined corrupt intention i.e., one’s willingness and intent to engage in corrupt behavior, the attitude towards corrupt people and the association of those two factors with social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism.
“It always seemed a paradox to me that people sometimes had a very negative opinion toward corrupt people but when they had the chance they also acted corruptly,” explained Vilanova, a professor of psychology at Universidade LaSalle. “We hypothesized that this contradiction happened because attitudes toward corrupt people would likely have a distinct psychological root from corrupt intention, so we decided to investigate it through multiple studies.”
Social dominance orientation represents one’s preference for hierarchies in the society and for domination over groups one considers being of lower status. Right-wing authoritarianism refers to the support of harsh coercive measures, uncritical submission to authority and traditional masculine values. Previous studies have found corruption to be more likely to be widespread in countries run by right-wing parties.
Social dominance orientation was assessed using the Social Dominance Orientation scale. Corrupt intention was assessed using a social decision vignette in which respondents needed to decide whether to offer a bribe or not. Right-wing authoritarianism was assessed using the authoritarianism scale of the Authoritarianism-Conservativism-Traditionalism scale. The attitude towards corrupt people was assessed using the “affective thermometer”, on which participants expressed their attitudes towards a number of different groups including “the corrupt people”.
Participants assessed “corrupt people” similarly to drug dealers, gang members and violent criminals. Finally, authors used assessments of competitive and dangerous worldviews i.e., assessments of the extent to which one sees the world as a jungle without rules where people struggle for survival (competitive) and the extent to which they see the world as threatening and dangerous (dangerous).
In 5 of the six studies, participants were Brazilians recruited in various ways – convenient participants, members of a labor union, Facebook users and users of various social media platforms. The remaining one study reanalyzed data from the World Value Survey with the goal of testing the authors’ hypothesis on data gathered internationally.
The results showed that people who expressed higher levels of social dominance orientation were also more likely to engage in corrupt behavior (higher corrupt intention). On the other hand, right-wing authoritarianism was not associated with corrupt intention, but was associated with negative attitudes towards both “dangerous groups” (drug dealers, gang members and the like, but also corrupt people) and “dissident groups” (protestors, feminists, gay rights activists, environmentalists, prostitutes…).
That expressing negative attitudes toward corrupt people does not prevent corruption; 2) That the endorsement of inequality between groups in society and the belief that the world is a competitive jungle are two powerful predictors of corrupt intention.
Results showed that people higher in social dominance tended to see the world as a competitive place, while those higher in right-wing authoritarianism tended to more often see it as a dangerous place. One of the studies involved an experiment that showed that right-wing authoritarianism increases when people feel threatened.
Together, the findings provide evidence that “expressing negative attitudes toward corrupt people does not prevent corruption and “that the endorsement of inequality between groups in society and the belief that the world is a competitive jungle are two powerful predictors of corrupt intention,” Vilanova explained.
The study highlighted important links between certain worldviews, ideologies and corruption. However, left-wing ideologies were not included in the study. Results also might have been somewhat different if right-wing authoritarianism was assessed through each of its three constituents (traditionalism, conservativism, authoritarianism) separately.
“One important aspect that needs to be addressed is how the model is replicated in other countries,” Vilanova said. “Since our studies were conducted in Brazil, a high-corruption context, it is unclear if it holds in countries with lower levels of corruption such as New Zealand.”
“It is important that social psychologists address the issue of corruption,” the researcher added. “There are estimates that corruption costs around US$2.6 trillion per year so the more scholars address this issue, the more effective interventions we will have.”
The study, “A Dual Process Social Psychological Model of Corrupt Intention and Attitudes Toward Corrupt People“, was authored by Felipe Vilanova, Taciano L. Milfont, and Angelo Brandelli Costa.