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Cognitive psychology concepts for understanding corrupt behaviour

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Cognitive psychology concepts for understanding corrupt behaviour

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By Siri Neset

(We developed this background information to accompany U4 Issue The cognitive psychology of corruption)

Cognitive psychology is defined as the study of individual-level mental processes such as information processing, attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, decision-making, and thinking (Gerrig and Zimbardo 2002). A core assumption of analysing corrupt behaviour through a cognitive psychology lens is that individuals make conscious decisions to engage in corrupt behaviour. These decisions most likely involve several parallel psychological processes. Improved understanding about how these processes are involved in decision-making on corruption could improve the design of anti-corruption programs directed towards societies where corruption is the norm or towards individual power-holders. Below, we review concepts related to decision-making within the field of cognitive psychology that are most relevant for explaining corrupt behaviour and that appear in our literature review.

Information processing

A decision involves a choice between two or more alternatives that involve choices about questions like whether, whom, when, and which. Each alternative is associated with a set of beliefs about the outcome associated with each alternative. Every outcome is associated with a value or preference, although these beliefs and values may well be idiosyncratic to every decision-maker. Making a choice implies commitment to the chosen alternative and can involve searching for reasons or rationalisations to justify the choice.

A basic model of decision-making consists of three steps:

  1. Input in the form of visual or auditory information
  2. Storing and coding of that information in the brain, with this stored information used by the parts of the brain responsible for mental activities such as memory, perception and attention
  3. Output in the form of behaviour based on information processing (McLeod 2008).

The task of choosing between alternatives and behaving in a particular way involves various degrees of information processing. This in turn entails different forms of data-driven and concept (or hypothesis) driven knowledge acquisition activities that range along the continuum from direct knowledge (perception based) to indirect knowing (cognition based) that involves more complex inference tasks (Baron and Harvey 1980; Harris 1981; Lindsay and Norman 1977; Taylor and Crocker 1981).

Three factors influence the correct processing of information. One, time: stress and high levels of information that need processing weaken attention and accuracy (Hastie, 1981). Two, capacity: individuals require the mental capacity to process incongruent information (Fiske, Kinder and Larter 1983). Three, motivation: individual preferences for accuracy over maintaining the status quo will result in different behavioural outcomes (Crocker et al. 1984).


The idea of “schemata” is a well-known concept within cognitive psychology, and can help us to understand the internal mental processes (i.e. coding and information storage) that lie between the stimuli (input) and the response individuals make in face of any given situation. A schema is defined as “a cognitive structure of organised prior knowledge, abstracted from experience with specific instances that guide the processing of new information and the retrieval of stored information” (Fiske and Linville 1980, 543). Schemata include script, examples, and analogies. They are a structured framework that helps people to store, simplify, and relate information, and they differ according to level of expertise and involvement. Furthermore, they are connected to complex cognitive processes such as memory, and are at the heart of both data-and theory-driven information processing. In terms of decision-making processes, cognitive psychology research on schemata can tell us much about how established knowledge influences the way in which new knowledge is understood, categorised, selected, coded, inferred, stored and retrieved (Larson 1994).

How schemata function can be described in five points. First, schemata organise experiences. Secondly, they influence how long-term memory stores, and retrieves, information (Taylor and Crocker 1981). Third, the structure of the schemata can act as a basis for filling out missing information (Minsky 1975) and as such provide information that is perceivable in the given situation (Taylor and Crocker, 1981). Fourth, schemata contribute to simplify problem solving through shortcuts and heuristics (Tversky and Kahneman 1973). Finally, schemata are instrumental in self-evaluation by providing a basis from prior experiences.

Emotions and motivations

Emotions and motivations have traditionally been omitted from traditional cognitive research (Smith and Semin, 2004). However, within a situated cognition perspective, motivational constructs are useful for understanding the initiation and determination of information processing. Emotions are seen as a vital ingredient in functional cognition. Studies demonstrate that brain damage affecting the emotional systems (where verbal abilities and “intelligence” are intact) severely affected patients’ rational decision-making ability (Damasio 1994).

Cognition and behaviour

The study of cognition is inseparably tied to observations of behaviour or actions taken by the individual. The mind is viewed as composed of inner structures that organise information from the environment, connect this information with prior stored knowledge, and process information and knowledge to form a decision upon which to act (Clark 1997, 47). The cognition/behaviour link is, however, not a clean-cut relationship wherein cognition shapes behaviour. A substantial body of work on some of the basic theories in psychology (such as that on dissonance theory – see Festinger 1957) shows that the connection is bidirectional and that cognition and behaviour are so closely tied that it is difficult to change one without changing the other (e.g. Cooper and Fazio 1984).

Cognition in context

In most cases, context specific social and physical knowledge drives or influences information processing. Some theorists view “cognition as an adaptive process that emerges from the interaction between an individual and the world, both physical and social” (Smith and Semin 2004, 55). Features of the environment/context that the individual operates within are thus both recourses for, and constraints on his/her cognition and behaviour (Smith and Semin 2004).The environment is both a supplier of inputs as well as a receiver of inputs and is an interactive and responsive “unit” to human actions, a process of continuous reciprocal causation (Clark 1997).

Can individuals’ cognitive psychology be changed?

Theories of schematic bases of belief change are central to our understanding of how we can influence change in individual behaviour. Even though schemata are very resistant to change, it can change through experience and exposure to incongruent information ( information that does not fit with the content of the excising schema) (Crocker, Fiske and Taylor 1984).

Incongruent information leads to schematic change via accommodation and assimilation (Inhelder and Piaget 1958). In most cases, incongruent information simply assimilates into the existing corresponding schema, rather than the schema accommodating or adjusting to the incongruent information (Crocker et al. 1984). People are attentive to incongruent information, but research has revealed that such information is rarely processed completely via short-term memory and then stored in long-term memory. Instead, incongruent information is often labelled “fake,” and consequently, existing mental examples do not update (ibid).

Several schematic features can change when faced with incongruent information. First, new variables can be added to the schema and old ones discarded. Second, default values associated with the schematic variables can change. Third, the vertical and horizontal structure of the categories and sub-categories that compose the schema can change. Fourth, what is mentally considered a prototype or “good example” can change. But the more developed a schema is, the more resistant it is to change, although any change that does stick is likely to have large consequences for other schemata (Fiske et al. 1983). Moreover, a schema that is not activated when incongruent information is present cannot be changed (Crocker et al. 1984). In other words, a schema that does not contain elements that can be challenged and thus changed will not shift, because there are no cases that are clearly incongruent (ibid). Moreover, clear and concentrated information presented repeatedly is more difficult to dismiss (Lord, Ross and Lepper 1979; Crocker et al. 1984)

For references, please see U4 Issue The cognitive psychology of corruption.


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