New research explores the connection between feeling guilty and the likelihood of engaging in corrupt behaviors, such as accepting bribes

The study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, explores the connection between personality traits and corrupt behaviour, emphasizing the significance of proneness to feeling guilty in combating bribery.

The research, conducted by Prof. Xiaolin Zhou from East China Normal University, has important implications for addressing corruption in politics and governance.

Two online experiments involving 2,082 college students conducted

To investigate this relationship between feeling guilty and corruption, researchers conducted two online experiments involving 2,082 college students.

By combining economic games with personality measures, they found that individuals who were more prone to feeling guilty were less likely to accept bribes.

The study also revealed a link between individuals’ concerns for others and their willingness to engage in bribery.

Computational modeling can help us understand underlying behaviours

The use of computational modeling provided insights into moral decision-making and the psychological mechanisms underlying ethical behavior.

However, it is important to note that the study establishes a correlation, not causation.

Therefore, it cannot definitively conclude that increasing guilt-proneness will directly reduce corrupt behavior.

Additionally, the research solely focuses on proneness to feeling guilty as a single personality trait and does not consider other moral-related traits that may influence bribery.

Shot of a concerned looking young man sitting on a bed while his wife sleeps in the background
Image: © PeopleImages | iStock

Alternative psychological mechanisms should be explored

Dr. Zhou suggests exploring alternative psychological mechanisms that could contribute to the relationship between guilt-proneness and bribery.

This may include researching behaviors such as:

  • Responsibility
  • Obedience
  • Conformity

In the meantime, the researchers encourage leveraging the findings to develop policies and interventions aimed at preventing corruption and promoting ethical behavior across various domains, including business and government.

“It would be intriguing to investigate alternative psychological mechanisms – such as responsibility, obedience, or conformity – beyond the concern for others’ suffering, that may underlie the relationship between guilt-proneness and bribery,” Dr. Zhou explains.

“We hope that our findings can inform policies and interventions aimed at preventing corruption and promoting ethical behaviors in various domains, such as business and government,” says the first author Dr. Yang Hu.

‘Our results have important implications for current world events’

The study suggests that evaluating proneness to feeling guilty in personnel selection, particularly when choosing group leaders, is crucial.

“Our results have important implications for current world events, particularly in the realm of politics and governance where corruption and bribery are major concerns,” explains author Prof. Xiaolin Zhou, of East China Normal University.

“More specifically, our results highlight the importance of assessing candidates’ guilt-proneness in personnel selection, especially when electing a leader for a group.”

The hope is that these insights will contribute to efforts in deterring corrupt practices and fostering integrity.

Dr. Yang Hu, the first author of the study, expresses optimism that the research outcomes can inform practical strategies to combat corruption and foster ethical conduct in different spheres of society.


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