Orientation to Corruption

Before we delve into how corruption works and why it is a power problem, let us define corruption. Corruption means unfairly restricting access to a thing that we presume should be broadly available — whether it is water or governmental services or school or business contracts or the true value of a company. That is, corruption means that someone has narrowed access to the public good for the benefit of themselves and/or specific others (e.g., family members, political allies, business partners). These gate-keepers must be the recognized authorities for granting access (otherwise we would just be speaking of arbitrage). Note that if there is no presumption that something of value is supposed to be available to the public -- say your home -- then restricting access to a private thing is not considered corrupt.

Corruption may involve taking bribes, but it may also mean absconding with public assets such as foreign aid or government contracts. The profiteer has an obvious opportunity to employ any of the tactics of the interpersonal power/influence model (Raven, 1965): reward, punishment, affiliation and so forth. It is generally assumed that social norms and values are one bulwark against corruption, and that the force of law and public accounting practices are another (Jayawickrama, 2001). That is, if people respect the concept of public good, they would not endeavor to make it private. If laws required open bidding on contracts, publication of financial records, and prohibitions on people occupying roles for which it would be easy to imagine quid pro quo arrangements in short time periods (such as lobbyists and Congress members), corruption should be less likely.

To understand why corruption occurs, we should also consider norms, values, and contextual factors. Reciprocation is one of the most deeply held human norms (e.g., Homans, 1961). Thus, if someone does a favor or makes a gift or invites one, one will usually feel compelled to reciprocate. In fact, “you owe me” is a stereotypic thing for someone who engages in arbitrage to say to the person who is coerced into paying “tribute.” Similarly, loyalty is valued by many people, and being loyal to specific others with whom one already has relationships rather than to the general public at large can contribute to corruption (Hildreth, Gino & Bazerman, 2016): the family who already attended an Ivy League school, the company the government contracted with last time, the job applicant who was recommended by one’s sister. Not every country considers jobs offered by private employers to be a public good, so such jobs are not subject to equal employment opportunity procedures, such as publicly advertising the jobs. 

Gate-keepers alone cannot cause corruption to occur; there must be people willing to offer special favors, bribes, loyalty or the like for corruption to occur. Profit, power, control, luxury are obvious motives for a profiteer. But what motivates others to enable a profiteer to profit? 

In a word, scarcity. If corruption is restraining access to a public good, then the lack of alternative ways to gain that access that motivates engaging in corruption. This is part of why some of the poorest countries in the world are among the most corrupt. Places that have poor government services, and where a particular entity (such as one company, the government, a ruling family) controls nearly everything are just the places that make other people the most desperate for getting what they need. In interdependence theory (Thibault & Kelley, 1959), scarcity would be described as having few good comparison alternatives. 

There is also research showing that people with certain personality characteristics are more likely to engage in corruption than other people (see Power and Personality page).


Hildreth, J.A.D., Gino, F., & Bazerman M. (2016).  Blind loyalty? When group loyalty makes us see evil or engage in it. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 132, 16-36.

Homans, G. C. (1961). Social behavior: Its elementary forms. NY: Harcourt Brace.

Jayawickrama, N. (2001). Transparency International: Combatting corruption through institutional reform. In A. Lee-Chai and J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The use and abuse of power. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press. (pp. 281-298).

Clifford, S., Jerit, J., Rainey, C., & Motyl, M. (2015, February 6). Moral Concerns and Policy Attitudes: Investigating the Influence of Elite Rhetoric. Political Communication. Informa UK Limited. https://doi.org/10.1080/10584609.2014.944320

Raven, B. H. (1965). Social influence and power. In I. D. Steiner & M. Fishbein (Eds.), Current studies in social psychology (pp. 371-382). New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston.

Thibault, J. W., & Kelley, H. H. (1959). The social psychology of groups. New York: Wiley.

Additional Readings

Kipnis, D. (1976).  The metamorphic effects of power.  In D. Kipnis (Ed.), The powerholders (pp. 168-216).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kipnis, D. (2001).  Using power: Newton’s second law.  In A.Y. Lee-Chai, & J.A. Bargh (Eds.), The use and abuse of power: Multiple perspectives on the causes of corruption (pp. 3-17).  Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press. 

 Fiske, S. T. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping. American Psychologist, 48, 621-628.

Chen, S., Lee-Chai, A. Y., & Bargh, J. A. (2001). Relationship orientation as a moderator of the effects of social power. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 173-187.

Overbeck, J. R., & Park, B. (2001). When power does not corrupt: Superior individuation processes among powerful perceivers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 549-565.

Discussion Questions/Exercises

  1. Using interdependence theory, outline the circumstances under which having people with little access gain access to public goods via engaging in corruption is likely to reduce the power inequality between gate-keepers and the public. Conversely, what conditions would mean that corruption perpetuates the inequality that breeds it in the first place?
  2. Using interdependence theory, describe what outside countries could do to reduce corruption within a very poor and very unequal country. Use the theory to explain how this might work.
  3. Use the phenomenon of corruption in poor countries to compare and contrast Power Basis Theory and Interdependence Theory.

Additional Resources

Ways to Fight Corruption | World Bank

Greed in Africa | New York Times

Global Corruption | TED Talk

Transparency International's Suggestions

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