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Soenens and Michels: Are we hardwired for corruption or for integrity?

While one corruption scandal follows another, committed integrity defenders are relying more and more on behavioral sciences to design compliance systems and anti-corruption policy measures.

Various systems and practices have been developed to nudge employees, tax payers or contractors towards ethical behavior, aided by hints and formats that seem similar to website pop-ups or software solutions. But what exactly is the nature of human morality? Are we hardwired for corruption or for integrity? Let’s take a look at the fundamentals of ethical behavior…

Research confirms what already warms the hearts of many parents: spontaneous prosocial behavior exists at a very early age (Eidenberg, Spinrad & Morris, 2013). Toddlers display prosocial and empathic behavior, by offering to help, share food and hug a crying peer, and young kids under the age of two demonstrate a developed sense of fairness.

In an experiment, researchers showed videos of two giraffe dolls sharing cookies. One set of kids witnessed the giraffe dolls sharing the cookies equally, whereas the other group witnessed one giraffe keeping all of the treats. The infants stared significantly longer at the ‘unfair’ video, indicating that something was amiss and disapproving the situation with their body language (Sloane, Baillargeon & Premck, 2012).

These displays of prosocial behavior, empathy and a moral sense of fairness come at such an early age, that they are unlikely to find their origins in the slow processes of internalization and socialisation. It is along this vein that ethologists and evolutionary psychologists argue that this behavior is in-built into our human nature, contributing to the survival of our genetic heritage (De Waal, 2009; Preston & De Waal, 2002).

These natural fundamentals translate into our neuro-physiological circuits, for example through ‘mirror-neurons’ regulating the processes of emotional contamination. Basic moral intuition is present already in babies in a rudimentary form (Wynn & Bloom, 2013), a capacity needed to develop more complex ethical behavioural skills later on (Davies et al., 1994).

If we are hardwired for integrity, as these findings suggest, what are the implications for anti-corruption policy?

One lesson is to incentives (positive or negative) parsimoniously, as they can turn the intrinsic drive for natural moral behaviour into instrumental and incentives-driven behaviour.

Secondly, awareness-raising campaigns and nudges can seek to reinforce natural moral behaviour rather than correcting unethical behaviour.

Thirdly, anti-corruption practices based on fundamental distrust, such as the “four-eyes principle” or multiple layers of administrative control, may be replaced by systems that grant more personal responsibility to staff and managers in carrying out their tasks.

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The 2017 OECD Global Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum will be held on March 30-31, 2017 in Paris. The Forum provides a platform for researchers from various disciplines to present their latest evidence and insights on anti-corruption and integrity.

Find our call for papers and register here.

Happy holiday season!


Prof. Dr. Bart Soenens is with the Department of Developmental, Personality and Social Psychology at Ghent University and Jeroen Michels is a Policy Analyst in the OECD Public Sector Integrity Division.

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