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The Malady of Corruption: Is It Contagious or Inherited?

Psychologists find that you can be infected by corruption by being around it.

Key points

  • Researchers have found that countries with the highest number of years of schooling in 1870 have the lowest levels of corruption in 2010.
  • Corruption is highly contagious, despite differing cultural norms surrounding corrupt behaviors.
  • Simply seeing corruption can lead people who would not be thought of as bad people into corrupt practices.

The idea that the choices leaders make will carry into future generations is not new. The Old Testament admonishes fathers that their sins affect their sons unto the third and fourth generations. The 12th-century Iroquois constitution required leaders to weigh the effects of their decisions unto the seventh generation.

While it is difficult to perform psychological assessments that span centuries, it is possible to consider whether historical choices achieve desired outcomes. Considering the historical choices of the happiest countries, the United Nations Happiness Report finds that the countries in which people are happiest have a history of equality and high-quality institutions. In the late 1800s, with the intention of generating national cohesion, today’s happiest countries implemented free and widely available education for all citizens.

When researchers Uslaner and Rothstein evaluated the impacts of that action, they found that the countries with the highest mean number of years of schooling in 1870 had the lowest levels of corruption in 2010. The UN Happiness Report concludes that cohesiveness and low corruption co-occur. This generations-long focus on equality in education achieved its aim of generating cohesiveness, which in turn, perpetuated low corruption and trust between people and institutions. Widespread free education as a corruption-buster passes the test of time.

Conversely, Rothstein and Uslaner observed that inequality perpetuates corruption. Inequality begets low trust whereby people are trapped in a downward spiral of social division and unwillingness to pay taxes or support reforms that improve the welfare of citizens because "other" groups benefit.

Over time, a divided society fails to provide quality representative institutions and public services. The countries that do not provide for widespread education become trapped in cycles of corruption, while those that educate equally perpetuate cycles of well-being. Thus, as time-honored wisdom and more recent studies point out, the effects of a single act can indeed continue for generations.

Another way in which corruption spreads, according to psychologists, is much more immediate. In 2019 Schram, Di Zheng, and Zhuravleva, in their study, "Contagious corruption: cross-country comparisons," found that decades of research support the phenomenon that corruption is contagious. No matter the test or the culture, the phenomenon holds. Psychologists agree that universally, corruption is highly contagious, despite differing cultural norms surrounding corrupt behaviors. They explain that simply seeing corruption by others makes people more corrupt and that once it starts, it’s hard to stop.

Psychologists provide observations on how corruption spreads. It starts when one person commits what may be a very small act that strays from best practice. In an organization, it may be as simple as stealing a pencil or taking a safety shortcut on a production line. If the act is not criticized, it becomes the standard for what is allowable. It's all about what is going on in the minds of observers. Even though many in the organization may think that something is wrong, they may not say so if they are insecure about their position in the organization or are in a lower position in the hierarchy.

Others may not speak up because they don’t hear others speaking up and conclude that because no one said anything against it, others think the act is acceptable. They then rationalize that the act is more normal and more ethical than previously thought. When a next slightly more unethical action arises, it is weighed against the benchmark of past practices. Tenbrunsel and Messick call this the induction mechanism: "If the past practices were ethical and acceptable, then practices that are similar and not too different are also acceptable.”

In this way, bit by bit, an organization slides into immorality. The small steps over time may progress so slowly that no one is even aware of subsequent acts that multiply or are more extreme. This is how people who would not be thought of as bad people are infected with corruption. Behavioral economists and psychologists say that it is so contagious that bystanders who see corrupt acts become blind to them.

Psychologists agree that corruption can be both inherited and contagious. The good news is that virtuous behavior is also inheritable and contagious. Read more here: "The 4 Virtues of World Happiness."


Miller, Dale T., and Deborah A. Prentice. “Collective Errors and Errors about the Collective.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 20 (1994): 541 - 550.

Tenbrunsel, Ann E., Messick, David E. (2004) "Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior." Social Justice Research, Vol. 17, No. 2.

Arthur Schram, Jin Di Zheng and Tatyana Zhuravleva. (2019). Contagious corruption: cross-country comparisons. European University Institute Max Weber Programme.

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