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Psychological analysis of corruptive phenomena


This article deals with the phenomenon of corruption from a psychological point of view. In particular, the group dynamics and decision-making processes of this phenomenon are examined in the following, by reviewing the main psychological theories arising from the various orientations, which allow a general overview of the corruptive mechanism.

Finally, it describes the operation of the corruptive device as it emerged in the well-known case of the Italian chronicle called “tangentopoli”. The paper draws inspiration and constitutes the development of the Master’s Degree thesis discussed by the author.

  1. Introduction

Corruptive phenomena are ubiquitous and endemic throughout the world,  they paralyze the economic development of countries and crystallize their social stratification, all this to the obvious disadvantage of the weakest fringes of the population. Over time, the interventions carried out in Italy by the legislator and the repressive action carried out by the Judicial Authority have failed to eradicate this malpractice. The various updates to the Penal Code, oriented to a tightening of penalties and an extension of prescription times for certain types of crime, were not enough. Although in the past there has been an attempt to estimate the annual costs of corruption, identifying this figure in 3% of GDP (EUR 60 billion), this hypothesis remains unproven to this day (Davigo, 2017).

What is certain is that the costs of corruption are very difficult to measure and in any case, they lie ahead to be very high in our country. This is demonstrated by some studies dedicated to the subject, conducted by Golden and Picci. “The two scholars compared the expenses of the Italian Regions on infrastructure and the inventory of what was actually achieved on the territory. The difference between expenses and works actually built has been of use to elaborate an index of corruption of the Italian Regions.” (Davigo, 2017). This resulted in very obvious waste and disproportions among the various Regions.

  1. Definition of corruption

Defining corruption is not easy at all, there are a substantial number of descriptions of the phenomenon in general, each of which takes on a significant and different aspect. The picture that is outlined therefore appears heterogeneous, complex, and fragmentary.

In reviewing some of the most accredited definitions we will avail of an important document, the result of the synergy between the different looms of the institutional world (Anac, Agency for Territorial Cohesion, Department for Cohesion Policies of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers & Study and Development, 2015). In their project ‘external PON GAT 2007/2013 Evaluation Activities’, corruption is defined as follows:

  • ‘A social practice that results in a series of conducts carried out within a particular relational context’;
  • ‘Any form of abuse of public power in order to obtain personal benefits;
  • “The conduct that deviates from the formal duties of a public role due to oriented earningsprivately”;
  • ‘Infringement of the common interest to obtain special benefits.’

In modern states, the exercise of public power is based on delegation mechanisms that recall rules, values, and procedures based on ethical universalism. Therefore it is possible to bring corruption back to ‘an abuse for private purposes of a delegated power.

According to the broad definition given by Transparency International (the largest global organization that deals with preventing and combating corruption) in the public sectorcorruption is a social practice that presupposes:

  1. (a) a delegation of decision-making power from a collective entity to an agent;
  2. (b) the possibility of a breach of trust by the staff member;
  3. c) clients led by private interests who enter into a hidden relationship with the agent.

In its basic structure, corruption in the public sector is achieved when the delegated staff member, in the exercise of his decision-making and administrative power, appropriates directly or through a corrupter, the annuities arising from the exercise of that power.

In the study of the factors that favour the development of corruption we can distinguish three main paradigms:

1) The ‘economic paradigm’ that considers the choices of the corrupt and corrupters as the result of a rational calculation, based on the ‘cost versus benefits’ logic. This approach can be schematically summarised in the formula:

C = M + D – T – A


C = corruption;

M = degree of monopoly of annuities derived from the exercise of public power;

D = degree of discretion in the exercise of the power of the public official to create, distribute or expropriate such annuities;

T = degree of transparency of procedures;

A = degree of accountability, that is, of ‘rendicontabilitа’ in the exercise of public power.

2) The ‘socio-cultural paradigm’ instead looks at the different distribution of what is called the ‘moral costs’ of corruption. Moral costs are influenced by the values and informal codes prevailing in socio-economic organisations in which the individual is socialized.

3) The ‘New Institutionalist Paradox’ instead focuses on the mechanisms that govern the relationships between the protagonists of occult exchanges, focusing on the relational elements that come into play among participants in corruption (Anac, Agency for Territorial Cohesion, Department for Cohesion Policies of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers & Study and Development, 2015).

  1. Psychological framework of corruptive phenomena

3.1 Psychodynamic hypotheses

The fundamental premise of this paragraph is that there is no diagnostic profile of the corrupt, we are all potentially at risk in the face of corrupt behaviour (Ambrosiano & Sarno, 2015). I do not think we can even talk about a moral disorder, alluding to the clinical meaning to which the word disorder refers. We can at most speak, in a broad sense, of a ‘sick group’, as the corruptive and concussive dynamics always provide for the presence of at least two people as a necessary and sufficient condition. And it is precisely this initial consideration that paves the way for us, identifying in the above-mentioned corruptive dyad (couple) the primordial cell from which the great corruptive phenomena emanate, which often widen as a wildfire involving various sectors of Public Administration and the world of entrepreneurship.

The concept of dyad refers to the first couple that is ever constituted, the one between child and caregiver. This prototype of an inaugural relationship to the existence of a group will then forge all subsequent relationships that the individual will have during his or her existence.

Analogically, extending the present reasoning, we start from the child’s relationship with the caregiver ending at the affiliate mechanisms of the individual to the group to which he belongs (e.g. working group). And it is precisely in the working group where the corrupt logic of the offenders’ group is established, logic bent to the self-interest of a few, but from a perspective other than disobedience. In corrupting phenomena, in fact, the group of offenders does not disobey at all, as it knows well and marries the dominant ideology. What the offenders ask for is the suspension of the law, that is, the suspension of the rules imposed by the dominant ideology: the law. So what the corrupt point to is not disobedience but the state of exception: what makes it possible to bend the norm to particular uses without intending to eliminate it.

By posing for a state of exception, the offenders also circumvent the conflict, which would result from an act of disobedience, also saving themselves the psychic work that this would entail.

Attributes such as: being uninformed, being unaware, being mere executors of provisions given from above, declaring themselves foreign to certain conduct, etc., refer to the figure of the victim, probably to a passive/depressive position. The corrupt ask for empathy when discovered and spread impunity (Ambrosiano & Sarno, 2015).

Far from making offenders look like naive individuals, it is noted that they often know how to conduct a calculation of costs and benefits in a prudent manner. Once prosecuted for crimes committed, they often manage to have short sentences, through bargaining, shortened rites, and relying on specialists in the Forum. Finally, the offenders return in some cases to public office despite being convicted of corruption.

3.2 Concepts derived from the psychology of financial conduct

As Ferrari and Romano (1999) point out, in general, there is a psychological cost related to abstinence with respect to the purchase. We can transpose this principle into the context of those who administer public economic resources in order to acquire goods and services for the community. Those who administer economic resources on behalf of the P.A. must be able to pursue collective utility, with all the constraints that this entails. Being able to dispose of large sums of public money, and having to observe legal constraints that end its use, could be a temptation for those who administer this money. The moment the pursuit of public profit is lost, and a private logic of appropriation of economic resources prevails, there is a failure of the above principle set forth by Ferrari and Romano (1999). So, guided by individual logic, the offending takes over a public resource that unduly makes its own with arbitrary ways and timing.

To this can be added that the public decision-maker, in purchasing goods and/or services, can count on an ever-increasing quality offer from private companies. In fact, the latter, driven by increasingly ambitious business models, and operating according to a private logic, represent an important solicitation for those who move public money. There is also often a competition between public bodies, justified by a plan for the modernization and redevelopment of their facilities, left in part to local initiative rather than entrusted to a centralized purchasing logic. Then there is a further comparison that can be made between a private economic agent and a public economic agent. The first could decide its own cash payouts (investment, consumption, savings, etc.) based on the climate of optimism or contingent pessimism towards the economic – general financial system. The second would instead be free from this condition of uncertainty, as the public funds at its disposal, once allocated and available, can be spent within a certain period of time, and in any case regardless of the conditions of uncertainty of the entire economic-financial system.

A quick consideration on the issue of unexpected earnings should be made at this point. According to Friedman these are characterised by a propensity to be fully spent (Ferrari & Romano, 1999). We could, through a small forcing perhaps, assimilate the public funds available to their respective economic decision-makers to ‘unexpected profit’. That is,  having such important figures but not their own would probably condition the delegated agent to spend them according to a logic of “everything now or never”.

As for the modus operandi implemented by the offenders, they would operate in terms of risk and uncertainty assessment, as would legally-oriented economic operators. For Keynes, the risk relates to events that can be treated through a calculation, quantifying the frequency of occurrence of an event. Let us assume that offenders operate ‘scientifically’, that is, trying to minimize all the risks that their illegal practice entails. Therefore, by maximising personal profit and minimizingcollective profit, they would act on the basis of a rationality criterion. Instead, as far as risk appetite according to Kahneman and Tversky (1979), it is more evident when trying to avoid a loss rather than achieve a gain. According to the news in the newspapers, in the various groups of offenders who commit corrupt offenses in association with crime, there is often a very clear differentiation of roles. There is commonly a dominus or more dominus, which concede the illicit to be put in place, there are then some intermediate figures of relief and connection between the dominus and the performers. The hypothesis proposed is that the latter, that is, the executors, would act according to Kahneman and Tversky’s principle (1979), that is, not so much to earn but rather to minimise the losses that their refusal to operate unlawfully would bring (loss of work, exclusion from the group, mobbing, etc.).

As Ferrari and Romano (1999) point out, the man of antiquity was immersed in a network of relationships, obligations, and customs shared within his community, such as to leave him little freedom for the impersonal activity of exchanging goods. In fact, the economic agent in antiquity bartered goods of equivalent value and the currency was subordinated to the goods. On the other hand, the economic agent in the contemporary era conducts his business transactions without personal constraints and psychological conditioning. In modern corrupt scenarios, often also accompanied by associative crime, there is a network of courtesies and favours between private entrepreneurship and civil servants that has ‘all the taste of a leap into the past’. That is, personal constraints and psychological conditioning in bargaining, lost over the centuries, return to the sick modern economy of corruption. In fact, the donation of money given to ensure the winning of a tender (i.e. the classic bribe) is often joined by various types of utility: hiring of relatives and/or friends at companies and public bodies, sponsorship of travel, various gifts (jewelery, watches, etc.). In short, these are all actions aimed at creating and nurturing personal constraints useful for the consolidation of the corrupt machine. Corruption is therefore an unintentional movement, therefore a regressive social practice.

3.3 Reflections drawn to the psychology of consumption

The decision-making process that guides the Public Administration should always be oriented toward a rational choice criterion in the procurement of goods and services. Such decision-making, based on an objective assessment of the characteristics of those goods and services, as well as their prices, would make it possible to create an order of preferences among all available alternatives (Oliviero & Russo, 2013). Decision-making about the purchase normally involves three steps:

1) the search for information on available goods and services and their prices;

2) the evaluation of the information collected and the comparison between the different possible options;

3) the resulting choice of the product and/or service to be purchased.

How a public body seeks and collects information on goods and/or services to be acquired could, for example, be through an exploratory survey, involving a number of economic operators. This step would result in an initial assessment of the tenders received and any decision (internal to the institution) to instruct a public tendering procedure.

A final reflection is now being proposed on how to search for preliminary information for a purchase (Oliviero & Russo, 2013). The consumer would search for preliminary information according to the following four ways:

  1. Active search: the consumer deliberately goes in search of information that could allow him a better choice;
  2. Passive search : the consumer collects information as exposed to advertising communications, as he comes into contact with the sales network of the product;
  3. Internal search : the consumer uses information already stored in his or her archives, and therefore already acquired;
  4. External research: the consumer turns to external sources to gain information about the product.

(A cura di Aurelio Calcagno – Traduzione in inglese di Francesca D’Ingillo)

Rivista scientifica digitale mensile (e-magazine) pubblicata in Legnano dal 2013 – Direttore: Claudio Melillo – Direttore Responsabile: Serena Giglio – Coordinatore: Pierpaolo Grignani – Responsabile di Redazione: Marco Schiariti
a cura del Centro Studi di Economia e Diritto – Ce.S.E.D. Via Padova, 5 – 20025 Legnano (MI) – C.F. 92044830153 – ISSN 2282-3964 Testata registrata presso il Tribunale di Milano al n. 92 del 26 marzo 2013
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