Collectivism and Bribery: Diffusion of Responsibility Leads to Immoral Action

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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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

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  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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  • Survey by Pew Research Center shows great variation in chauvinism across Europe.
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White-nose syndrome is nearly as lethal to bats as the Black Plague was for humans.

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  • Bats serve a crucial role in our ecosystem and economy, and white-nose syndrome is already pushing many species to the brink of extinction.
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