The Psychology of Corruption

by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

Some people hope that the imminent ANC leadership elections will eliminate – or greatly reduce – corruption. However, the problem of corruption runs deep and won’t be addressed simply by a change of leadership. We need to understand its dynamics, including the psychological and spiritual. This will help us to counteract its tendencies within ourselves, our communities and society.

From a psychological perspective there are a number of hypotheses. Kavisha Pillay draws on a number of psychological studies. One hypothesis is that the engagement in corrupt activity could be addictive. In a similar way to gambling, getting away with increasingly risky behaviours intermittently rewarded with large sums of money, may provide an addictive high.

Dr Giada Del Fabbro, a clinical psychologist, suggests that some personality traits may predispose individuals to corrupt behaviour. These include impaired empathy, self-centeredness, manipulation, a sense of entitlement and a tendency to project blame onto others. We see these characteristics being exhibited by many in leadership – the current Life Esidimeni hearings are a notable example.

Ann Tenbrunsel, from Notre Dame, has some fascinating insights which explain why people sometimes don’t see that they are acting unethically. It happens like this: A person in financial difficulty sees a way of getting out of it by a once-off simple lie or dishonest act. The sole focus at that moment might be making the best financial decision for themselves. They become blind to other (ethical) dimensions of the issue. After the first lie, they start to realise it’s not over. Now other lies have to be told to cover up the first lie. Because, often, the person cannot sustain the lie alone, other people around them get pulled in to help. People help not solely for financial incentives, sometimes people like each other and want to help others they identify with. “And when we are helping people, we really don’t see what we are doing as unethical,” Tenbrunsel says. When a higher value is placed on friendship and loyalty than ethics and integrity, there is a problem.

Gächter and Schulz used a game of dice-rolling in which money was the reward. While people often played the game to their advantage, the degree to which they acted unethically or corruptly correlated strongly with the level of corruption tolerated in their societies. The levels of corruption in one’s environment strongly shapes a person’s sense of what is acceptable.

Beyond the psychological, there is also a spiritual dimension. Personhood is distorted by a growing pattern of sin. Corruption distorts our whole way of being and of seeing the world. It disrupts our ‘spiritual DNA’ because it becomes a systemic way of living, and eventually our consciences are so dull that we do not see the darkness we are in. Pope Francis said: “corruption is when sin enters repeatedly your conscience and does not even leave you room for air; all becomes sin: this is corruption.”

We need to be especially vigilant in a society infected with corruption. We need to check in daily with God and with people whose ethics and spirituality we trust. Am I being ethical, honest and transparent or am I in danger of being sucked into the web of corruption?

Dr Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

Dr Annemarie Paulin-Campbell has worked in the area of Ignatian Spirituality for 19 years and heads up the work of the Jesuit Institute School of Spirituality. Her primary focus is the training and supervision of spiritual directors and the giving of retreats. She is also a registered Psychologist and her PhD focused on the interface between Christian Spirituality and Psychology. Annemarie is an editorial advisor to “The Way” journal of Spirituality and has authored a number of articles relating to the training of Spiritual Directors in an African context. She has contributed to several books, most recently co-authoring a book of Lenten Reflections: “Long Journey to the Resurrection”. She has contributed to international conferences and consultations in Spirituality in the United Kingdom; the United States; Rome; Spain, Ethiopia, Kenya and Zimbabwe. @annemariepc_c
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