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A Culture of Bribery?

Can cultural differences lead us to bribe?

There is a fairly universal view that bribery is an immoral practice, yet as the World Bank notes, more than $1 trillion (or 3% of the world GDP) is paid annually in bribes. Fascinating new research by Nina Mazar and Pankaj Aggarwal at the Rotman Business School in Toronto suggests, however, that the contributions to this figure may differ immensely across cultures.

The researchers noted that one broad psychological difference between cultures involves their level of collectivism -- the extent to which individuals in a given culture see themselves as independent from one another. Higher collectivism, as is seen in many Asian and Southern European cultures, results from the mind viewing one's own needs, outcomes, and responsibilities as more closely enmeshed with those of others. Mazar and Aggarwal hypothesized that an increased level of collectivism might allow individuals to engage in more bribery with members of different cultures, as they would feel a lower sense of personal responsibility for their moral transgressions (i.e., it would be "spread out" due to a lower sense of independence).

Initial support for their predictions came from an analysis of world-wide data involving measures of cultural collectivism, GDP, and tendencies to bribe (from Transparency International's 2008 BPI scores). Controlling for GDP, increasing collectivism correlated with increasing tendencies to bribe at an amazing level (r = .71). To provide even stronger evidence for their theory, the researchers next conducted a lab experiment in which business students were induced to think about themselves in a "collectivist" or "individualist" manner simply by having them complete word searches that included collectivist- or individualist-themed words. Following this prime, the students engaged in an exercise in which they competed against others to try to secure a contract with an international buyer. Those who had received the collectivist primes were 20% more likely to be willing to offer a bribe to win the contract.

The findings of the second study, to our minds at least, are strikingly important. What they show is that simple alterations in one's environs (things that could come from reading a travelogue or watching a television show) can impact everyone's propensity to engage in bribery in the moment, no matter what they think their "character" is.

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