Collectivism and Bribery: Diffusion of Responsibility Leads to Immoral Action
Maria Konnikova is the New York Times bestselling author of The Confidence Game (Viking/Penguin 2016) and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking/Penguin, 2013). She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker, where she writes a regular column with a focus on psychology and culture, and her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, California Sunday, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, WIRED, and The Smithsonian, among numerous other publications. Maria is a recipient of the 2015 Harvard Medical School Media Fellowship, and is a Schachter Writing Fellow at Columbia University’s Motivation Science Center. She formerly wrote the “Literally Psyched” column for Scientific American and the popular psychology blog “Artful Choice” for Big Think. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government, and received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University.
How does someone decide whether or not to offer a bribe? While there is a general consensus that bribery is not exactly the most moral act in the world, the practice remains rampant. As it turns out, one factor in its enduring presence is collectivism: the more collectivist a culture, the more likely someone is to engage in bribery. Why? Collectivism diffuses responsibility for actions. And when we don’t feel responsible, we don’t always act the way we otherwise would.
Bribes are more likely in collectivist than in individualist cultures
Bribery remains a global concern, but it is by no means equally distributed. In certain countries, the practice is much more common than in others. Researchers at the University of Toronto decided to investigate why.
First, they found a correlation. Companies that came from a country with a collectivist culture were more likely to offer bribes abroad than were companies from individualist nations. The relationship held strongly even when national wealth was taken into account.
The researchers then conducted a study to test the causality of the relationship. Business students were divided into two groups. In one, they were primed with a collectivist mindset, and in the other, with an individualist mindset. They then took part in a hypothetical business scenario, where they played the role of a sales agent competing against other firms for a contract from an international buyer. If the contract went through, the agent would earn a large commission.
The question: would they offer “unofficial payment” to the company to further their chances of succeeding? 58.3% of the participants in the collectivist condition said they would, as compared to only 39.7% of participants in the individualist condition – even though the two groups believed bribery to be wrong to the same extent. Moreover, those in the collectivist mindset held themselves less accountable for their actions than those in the individualist group. In fact, that’s why they decided to offer the bribe in the first place: they didn’t feel responsible for it.
Groups diffuse responsibility
Groups diffuse responsibility. This is a well-known phenomenon. Perhaps the most infamous example is the case of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old Queens woman who was murdered outside her home while 38 people watched. Not a single one intervened or called the police. Or consider the more recent case of Farai Kujirichita, a young man whose mob murder was even captured on video – and who was murdered nevertheless.
To me, it’s not at all surprising that a more collectivist identity can lead to the same diffusion of responsibility, albeit one that can manifest itself in less violent ways than murder. When we feel anonymous, like we are part of some greater whole, we feel less responsible for our actions. That’s the default state.
We are always responsible for our choices, collectivist or not
But perhaps, awareness of this default state—whether it comes from being part of a group of bystanders, a group that might become a mob, or simply a culture that engenders more collectivist beliefs—is the first step toward combating it and deciding for yourself that you, personally, are always responsible.
Every choice we make is our own. Whether that choice is offering or accepting a bribe, not calling for help, not stepping in, it is a choice. Some, it is true, border on the impossible (one person cannot do much to stop a mob) – but if everyone starts to feel a sense of individual responsibility even in a collective atmosphere or collectivist society, the balance just might tip away from the mob: while one person can’t stop it, a group of individuals have a much greater shot at success.
Take the example of Golden Mtika, the man who taped the South African murder. He did so at risk to his own life. Yes, he couldn’t step in, but he did the next best thing, ensuring the event would not be allowed to go unnoticed and would receive widespread attention that could potentially prevent such occurrences in the future.
The most important thing is to remember that you are always choosing, no matter where you are; and you must be willing to accept responsibility for the choices you make. Collectivism, groups, mobs, orders: it doesn’t matter. Your choice is yours alone.
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