The science behind corruption

The science behind corruption

Every so often we witness disappointing episodes, mainly in our governments, where a public official (or a group of them) is caught receiving bribes proposed by other officials or companies, in order to favor individual interests at the expense of the common good and ethical standards that, despised, survive in the forgotten writings of our legislation.

The cases are innumerable: Lava Jato (soon to become a Netflix series), the FIFA-Gate, the Watergate case, the Dieselgate of Volkswagen, the Panama Papers, Enron, officials who are enriched with public works at national levels, deviations of resources, money laundering, etc.

Societies, through their specialists and media, strive to explain such events appealing to the ethical issue, and often social and political. It is, however, much more complicated than it seems. Is corruption a characteristic inherent in the human condition? Or is it something socially constructed thanks to the environment that surrounds us? What happens in our brain and body when we perpetuate a corrupt act? At what point do we go from good to evil? What the different disciplines say, not only humanists, can open our eyes and understand these acts in a closer way, and less attributable only to the ruling classes.

From neuroscience, things get interesting. Apparently, there is no human being who cannot resist or be part of a corrupt act, that is, a “dishonest or fraudulent act“, or something “perverse” (as defined by the dictionary of the RAE or Oxford dictionaries).

A study by the University College of London, published in Nature Neuroscience in 2016, found through a series of experiments and evidence with functional magnetic resonance scans (fMRI) that the human brain was able to accept and adapt to dishonesty.

The authors managed to verify with revealing data that the popular belief that “corruption or lying (deviations from the moral code) begin on a small scale” correlated with reality. They focused on the cerebral amygdala (we do not speak the buccal tissue), the brain region responsible for human emotions.

This is a set of nuclei in areas deep in the temporal lobes of complex vertebrates, including humans: in it, there are processes as essential as memory, decision making and emotional responses. In both animals and humans, the amygdala is responsible for a series of instinctive reactions, those that are quickly codified in an experience and is itself that causes us to accept or reject it in the act.

Everything changes without supervision

It could be seen clearly, in the experiment with volunteers, how the initial fear that developed the dishonest or corrupt begins a few and their faults evolve over time to become large infractions. The collaborators participated in a game that tempted them to cheat their classmates (without their knowing it) and to profit with money in a dishonest way.

In the absence of supervision, the fear of the volunteer dissipated more and more, while the tendency to favor oneself at the expense of others increased.

The activity of the amygdala was measured with fMRI, which allowed to see that it decreased while the dishonest increased the scale of its deception. There was a process of accustomedness in which the corrupt volunteer lost the fear of punishment,

Not only on that occasion, but two years before, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience published a work by a Spanish-British team that scrutinized the biological and psychological processes that could also converge in a determined human behavior (a corrupt one) through the conductance of the skin – the epidermis is more conductive during states of extreme physiological reactions.

It was concluded that people, based on work with 93 volunteers, that people were less corrupt when they knew they could be observed or betrayed.

When observing the collected information of the conductance of the skin, they realized that the peak of emotional reaction arrived not when the ethical conflict was raised to them, but when they decided not to take a bribe. Avoiding punishment and losing a profit were the main reasons for the emotional reaction.

Apparently, the law and the social gaze positively influence our behavior, which is tempted by the original desire for the unlimited personal benefit.

It is interesting to note also the psychiatric approach that gives corruption and other degenerations in the power of political leaders of the neuroscientist, doctor and also British politician David Owen. For the latter, the corruption of a political leader with the power of authority comes in the framework of a picture he calls Hubris syndrome and developed in an article in the magazine Brain in 2009 and his book The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power. The excess of arrogance and arrogance could lead the politician to adjoin mental instability, according to Owen.

Should we, by that seemingly natural and instinctive tendency to self-gain, be relieved and allow ourselves to be corrupt? A reasonable answer would be that no, while the individualistic act (with the immediate goal of doing and doing good to ours and especially if we are public officials) could sad consequences in a social and community world. And we’re not just talking about diverting or stealing money from others. The life itself of those of our species is at stake.

After the earthquake in Haiti in 2011 (where thousands died from collapsed buildings), Nature issued a report with statistics that calculated that 83% of all deaths from building collapses in the last 30 years occurred in countries (according to statistics ) with the most corrupt systems.

Extrapolate that to other areas, where perhaps not many people die as in an earthquake, but the negative consequences are more lasting: poor education systems, poor health insurance, a society vulnerable to crime, mistreatment of nature.

Governments, organizations and individuals must make a concerted effort to create an environment that discourages acts of this nature and defines them as unacceptable, unfeasible and highly condemnable. Exemplary sanctions and a strong hand seem to be the strongest tools towards educating the human brain and thus prevent corruption, an absolutely regulable vice, from being the established norm.