Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Psychopathology of Corruption

Corruption serves as a "power mask" to hide personal insecurities.

Ion Chiosea/RF123
Source: Ion Chiosea/RF123

Corrupt people and people who are susceptible to corruption are not happy people. Happy people strive to maintain happiness. Unhappy people will do anything they can to become happy. Happy people resist change because change could introduce conditions that cause a reduction in happiness. Unhappy people seek change because change holds the hope of happiness. Corruption serves as a means to obtain happiness through power. Power places one person or group above another person or group creating an illusion of happiness through control. Corrupted people or groups often resort to illegal or oppressive tactics to obtain power or to keep power. Lording over people cannot bring happiness. Corruption only masks insecurities. The “power mask,” when stripped away, reveals personal insecurities, a source of unhappiness that must be avoided. Therefore, the corrupted person or group must maintain or increase their grip on power to maintain the illusion of happiness.

Characteristics of Corruption

Need for recognition

People typically do not wake up one morning and suddenly decide to become corrupt. Corruption is a measured process slowly enveloping its victims. Corruption begins with the seeds of discontent, unhappiness, and the need for recognition. The need for recognition is a powerful psychological need. Resentment ferments over time until the tipping point is reached when unhappy people feel compelled to take action to become happy. Corruption provides the illusion of happiness. Being a member of a corrupt group provides personal recognition by other group members. Corrupted groups also provide justification for illegal activities.

A group within a group

Corrupted groups form a group within a group separating themselves from the mainstream. Corrupted groups establish their own identities by adopting unique names for their groups. Group names serve as a means to identify those people who are in the group and those people who are not members of the group. Group names identify who the members of the group are and, more important, group names provide unique identities that give group members power and status.

Group loyalty over duty to the community

Members of corrupted groups swear allegiance to their groups ignoring their duty to the greater community. Personal values replace community values. Corrupted group members become loyal to individual values and to the values of the group. Corrupted groups form cocoons in which they function. In the cocoon, corrupted group members validate one another's corrupt activities. The purpose of the cocoon is to keep new ideas out. The more corrupt the group, the tighter the fabric of the cocoon becomes. Activities inside the cocoon become the new norm. If everyone in the group is corrupt, then corruption is perceived as a normal activity. The corrupt activities are only seen as wrong when outside ideas penetrate the fabric of the cocoon. New ideas create a standard against which to judge corrupt activities. Corrupt activities only become wrong when they are compared with the moral or legal standards maintained outside the corrupted groups' cocoons.

"Us against them" paradigm

Group separation also creates an "us against them" paradigm. Corrupted groups form the ideology that if you are not for us, you are against us. Corrupted groups are built on the distrust of outsiders. Any attempts to dismantle corrupted groups cause the corrupted group members to circle the wagons to defend against competing groups. Corrupted groups will go to extraordinary lengths to remain viable and, in most cases, to maintain power. If the illegal activity of corrupted groups is discovered, then their activities are perceived as immoral and illegal. As long as the cocoon repels outside ideas, the group will forever remain corrupt.

Institutional “no”

Members of groups assume the identity of the group to which they belong. Groups with strong identities are less likely to accept a compromise from competing groups; for to do so would cause a loss of group identity. Compromise, by definition, mandates both groups adopt ideas from another group or groups. Groups that are not corrupt can accept compromise because the goal of both groups is to do what is best for the community. However, corrupted groups, cannot accept compromise because they seek personal gain and do not share common community values. Additionally, if corrupted groups accept compromise, they would then have to face the fact that their activities are morally and legally bankrupt. The fabric of the cocoon of corrupt groups must remain intact in order for the corrupt group to remain viable. No compromise is actable no matter how inviting the terms. The more powerful the corrupted groups are the more corrosive and entrenched the corrupted groups become.

Need for power

The quickest way for insecure people to feel good about themselves is to place themselves above others. In the government as well as in the private sector, power is the fastest way to elevate one person above another person. As long as insecure people remain in power, they can hide behind the “power mask.” Insecure leaders will not accept new ideas because someone else may get the recognition and usurp the power of the corrupt groups. People who present new ideas threaten insecure leaders. The need for power does not remain static. Like an addictive drug, power craves ever greater power. Insecure leaders often do not have the requisite skills to excel, so they resort to corruption to keep and gain more power. Insecure leaders cannot relinquish power, for to do would expose their insecurities. Without an identity, insecure leaders fall into the nothingness of the human abyss.

Good Leadership Deters Corruption

Good leadership deters corruption. With good leadership, people respect their leaders and are shown respect in return. Good leadership creates an environment wherein people can feel good about themselves and to the greater group to which they belong. Today’s political and social environments are extremely vulnerable to corruption. The people who have power want to keep it and the people who do not have the power want to take power. Both groups often resort to corruption as a means to maintain the illusion of happiness and keep the power mask firmly in place to avoid facing their insecurities. I fear for America if corruption becomes the new norm.