Corruption and power: the connection

Was Lord Acton right? “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Or, is it more as John Steinbeck described “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power”?

Is there a connection between having power (in politics, government, business, etc.) and becoming or being corrupt? There seem to be examples all around us and, yet, we also see prominent people who appear not to succumb.

And, what are the effects of power when it comes to recognizing corruption? What about those with little power personally, yet are part of an organization, political party, or other movement which is controlled and run on a power dynamic?

Once we achieve some level of power–whether personally in our lives or at a much higher level–are we destined to lose perspective and become inured or blind to the appearances and effects of corruption?

What does the research say?

**see the most current version of this bibliography at

Featured articles:

*Kong, D. T., & Volkema, R. (2016). Cultural endorsement of broad leadership prototypes and wealth as predictors of corruption. Social Indicators Research, 127(1), 139-152. [Cited by]

Corruption is a social ill that involves public officials’ misuse of entrusted power, which is a function of sociocultural factors. Rarely, however, do researchers view corruption as a leadership-related problem. In the current research, we conceptualize corruption as a leadership-related problem, and propose three broad leadership prototypes based on social value orientation theory and research. We seek to examine (1) how cultural endorsement of self-serving, prosocial, and individualistic leadership prototypes is related to corruption at the societal level and (2) how wealth moderates the relationship between cultural endorsement of self-serving leadership and corruption. Using archival data of 53 societies, we found that cultural endorsement of self-serving leadership was positively related to corruption, strengthened by wealth. Cultural endorsement of prosocial leadership and individualistic leadership, however, was not significantly related to corruption, and wealth did not moderate either of the relationships. The implications of these findings for theory and future research are discussed.”

*Rosenblatt, V. (2012). Hierarchies, power inequalities, and organizational corruption. Journal of Business Ethics, 111(2), 237-251. [Cited by]

“This article uses social dominance theory (SDT) to explore the dynamic and systemic nature of the initiation and maintenance of organizational corruption. Rooted in the definition of organizational corruption as misuse of power or position for personal or organizational gain, this work suggests that organizational corruption is driven by the individual and institutional tendency to structure societies as group-based social hierarchies. SDT describes a series of factors and processes across multiple levels of analysis that systemically contribute to the initiation and maintenance of social hierarchies and associated power inequalities, favoritism, and discrimination. I posit that the same factors and processes also contribute to individuals’ lower awareness of the misuse of power and position within the social hierarchies, leading to the initiation and maintenance of organizational corruption. Specifically, individuals high in social dominance orientation, believing that they belong to superior groups, are likely to be less aware of corruption because of their feeling of entitlement to greater power and their desire to maintain dominance even if that requires exploiting others. Members of subordinate groups are also likely to have lower awareness of corruption if they show more favoritism toward dominant group members to enhance their sense of worth and preserve social order. Institutions contribute to lower awareness of corruption by developing and enforcing structures, norms, and practices that promote informational ambiguity and maximize focus on dominance and promotion. Dynamic coordination among individuals and institutions is ensured through the processes of person-environment fit and legitimizing beliefs, ideologies, or rationalizations.”

*Tan, X., Liu, L., Huang, Z., Zhao, X., & Zheng, W. (2016). The dampening effect of social dominance orientation on awareness of corruption: Moral outrage as a mediator. Social Indicators Research, 125(1), 89-102. [Cited by]

Corruption is one of the most detrimental factors to economies and social development, and it has become a universal problem around the world.

The present study aimed at exploring the role of social dominance orientation (SDO) on awareness of corruption and the mediating effect of moral outrage on this relationship.”

“Social dominance orientation (SDO) is a measure of an individual’s support for group-based hierarchies. It reflects a person’s attitudes toward hierarchies in general, as well as beliefs about whether one’s own group should dominate other groups.”

“To accomplish the objectives, we performed three empirical substudies with both correlational and experimental designs. In Substudy 1, SDO, moral outrage, and awareness of corruption were all measured with scales. The results indicated that SDO was negatively associated with moral outrage and awareness of corruption. In addition, moral outrage mediated the relationship between SDO and awareness of corruption. In Substudy 2, awareness of corruption was measured in a bribery scenario, and the results also indicated that moral outrage mediated the dampening role of SDO on awareness of corruption. In Substudy 3, SDO was manipulated by placing respondents in a dominant or a subordinate condition. The results indicated that compared with the subordinate position condition, the respondents primed by the dominant position condition reported less moral outrage and lower awareness of corruption. The three substudies consistently confirmed the dampening effect of SDO on awareness of corruption and the mediating effect of moral outrage on this relationship. The theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.”

*Tan, X., Liu, L., Huang, Z., & Zheng, W. (2017). Working for the hierarchical system: The role of meritocratic ideology in the endorsement of corruption. Political Psychology, 38(3), 469-479. [Cited by]

Meritocratic ideology is the belief that, in a given system, success is an indicator of personal deservingness—namely, that the system rewards individual ability and efforts.”

Corruption has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies, but it is widespread throughout the world. There is a question, however, as to whether corruption is endorsed as an outcome of a legitimate hierarchy and meritocracy. To address this issue, the present study examines the associations between meritocratic ideology and the indicators of corruption by performing two empirical studies with correlational and experimental designs. In Study 1, all variables were measured with scales, and the results demonstrated that meritocratic ideologies were negatively associated with corruption perception but positively associated with corrupt intention. In Study 2, meritocratic ideology was manipulated, and the results demonstrated that compared with the low meritocratic‐ideology condition, the participants primed by the high meritocratic‐ideology condition reported a lower corruption perception but higher corrupt intention. In both studies, the findings suggest that the meritocratic ideology that motivates people to maintain and bolster the current hierarchical structure and meritocracy leads to the endorsement of corruption. The present study explores the roles of meritocratic ideology in the perception and intention of corruption, extends the scope of the predictive power of system justification theory to corruption beyond mere injustice‐related aspects of disadvantage, and also provides suggestions for interpreting and fighting against corruption.”

*Wang, F., & Sun, X. (2016). Absolute power leads to absolute corruption? impact of power on corruption depending on the concepts of power one holds. European Journal of Social Psychology, 46(1), 77-89. [PDF] [Cited by]

Power has long been linked to the stigma of corruption. Three studies indicated that different power concepts have different implications for corruption behavior and perception. The personalized power concept relates to using power to pursue self‐centered goals for one’s own benefit, whereas the socialized power concept relates to using power to pursue other‐focused goals for benefiting and helping others. Three studies were conducted to explore the effect of these two types of power concepts on corrupt intention or practice. The power concepts were measured in Study 1, primed through previous experience in Study 2, and utilized within a specific context in Study 3, respectively. Taken together, the three studies indicate that the personalized (vs. socialized) power concept increases (vs. decreases) self‐interested behavior and tolerance towards others’ (especially high‐position others’) corrupt practices.”

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