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The cognitive psychology of corruption

Micro-level explanations for unethical behaviour

Traditional theories of corruption often make assumptions about motivations that may not necessarily be valid. We explored the power of an alternative theoretical paradigm to explain corrupt behaviour: cognitive psychology. We found evidence in the existing literature on the cognitive psychology of corruption about the psychological influence of power, personal gain and self-control, loss aversion and risk acceptance, rationalisation, and emotion on the propensity to act corruptly.

Also available in Spanish
3 June 2018
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The cognitive psychology of corruption

Main points

  • Individuals holding power are more likely to act corruptly.
  • Individuals are more likely to act corruptly when they stand to gain personally, have lower self-control, perceive that corruption will only cause indirect harm, and when they work in organisations where unethical behaviour is not punished.
  • Individuals are likely to be more risk-acceptant to offset losses, and risk-averse to preserve gains. Uncertainty is likely to increase the likelihood of acting corruptly.
  • Rationalisation narratives seem to make corruption more acceptable.
  • Emotions such as guilt may make it less likely for individuals to act corruptly.
  • To mitigate these cognitive influences, practitioners should support measures that improve information flows about the costs of corruption, that reward ethical behaviour and set basic integrity standards, and that improve organisational decision-making.
  • More research is required on how, which, and when particular cognitive psychological mechanisms make corruption more or less likely; the social psychology of corruption, and how social and cognitive psychologies interplay; the psychological effects of corruption on individuals; as well as case studies of political elites.

Cite this publication

Dupuy, K.; Neset, S.; (2018) The cognitive psychology of corruption. Bergen: U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Chr. Michelsen Institute (U4 Issue 2018:2)

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About the authors

Kendra Dupuy

Dr. Kendra Dupuy is a political economist working on research about natural resource and energy management, the education sector, and civil society. Formerly a Senior Adviser at U4, she is currently an affiliated researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute.

Siri Neset

Siri Neset is a political psychologist focusing on rhetoric, perceptions, foreign policy decision-making, identity, and the links between political ideology, power and violence. She is an associated researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway.


All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Daniel Oines