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.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

The army during riots in Washington, DC, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Scroll down to load more…