People in power who are guilt-prone are less likely to be corrupt

July 2, 2023

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People in power who are guilt-prone are less likely to be corrupt

Guilt. It’s a horrible feeling that causes us to question our worth as human beings. But while it’s something that induces sleepless nights and stress-related physical symptoms in individuals, a new study shows that for society at large, the tendency toward guilt might have some unexpected benefits.

What the researchers say: “People who are prone to feeling guilt in their everyday lives are less likely to take bribes,” said the senior author of a paper that appears in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

In the currently very relevant study, conducted in collaboration with international partners, the researchers looked at guilt not as an episodic state — such as how we feel after specific instances in which we hurt someone — but rather as a personality trait, in which people tend to worry about the potential harm their actions cause.

“So, I could be a person for whom it is really easy to feel guilt in my everyday life,” he explained, “while others might be less likely to feel guilt or have a higher bar for feeling that emotion.”

Most of us believe that anticipatory guilt might make us think twice before undertaking an action with potentially bad consequences for others. But what has been less clear is how this crucial morality-related personality trait affects decision makers in situations involving temptation and incentives, balanced against potential harm to others.

“The question was whether the trait of guilt is associated with a lower probability of engaging in corrupt behavior,” the researchers explained.

In their study, the team concentrated on bribery, an act in which a person that typically has some level of power and influence is tempted to act illegally or unethically in exchange for favors or gifts from someone who wishes to use that influence unfairly for their gain.

In one of the researchers’ online experiments, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire to record both demographic and personality information, and their fairness concerns. They also participated in one of two scenarios. The first one put them into the role of an arbitrator with the power to assign students grades. They were each paired with a “co-player,” who, unbeknown to them, was fictitious. The co-players (in this case the fictitious students who had been graded) would attempt to bribe the participants to change their grades in exchange for a portion of the reward the co-players would receive for passing the test above a certain threshold.

The second scenario gave each participant 100 tokens, ostensibly to donate to a children’s charity, such as UNICEF. Then co-players attempted to bribe the participants to give them the money, in exchange for keeping a certain portion for themselves.

“So, the structure of the two scenarios is similar, but the critical difference is that in the charitable donation scenario, the victim is obvious,” said the lead author. “The first scenario is more of just a violation of moral principle.”

As would be expected, participants who scored high in guilt-proneness (from the questionnaire) were less likely to accept a bribe in either of the two scenarios. The effect was more pronounced in the charitable donation scenario.

“You know someone’s going to get hurt,” he said. “In the paper we argue that when the victim is more salient, the association between the guilt trait and corrupt behavior becomes stronger.” Concern for others’ suffering, they said, might play a significant role in how guilt-proneness influences bribe-taking behaviors.

This study joins a growing body of work that associates guilt-proneness with fewer unethical decisions, such as cheating for personal gain and counterproductive work behaviors. But it’s important to note that this study is correlational, the researchers said. “We can’t make a causal claim that if we make people more guilt-prone, we will necessarily see less corruption. That needs more research.”

Indeed, they emphasized, guilt proneness is not the only trait that might predict corrupt behaviors (or lack of them), and it’s worth studying how this trait, along with other personality traits, might “serve as a reliable anti-corruption predictor in personnel selection,” such as when choosing people for leadership positions or for high-stakes jobs.

“We can’t claim causality, but we can leverage the association between the guilt trait and the lower likelihood of corruption to make us more confident about their integrity,” they concluded. “Maybe that’s something we can apply to the real world.”

So, what? This is an important study from a number of aspects.

The most interesting of these to me personally is the link between guilt and genetics. Various recent studies have shown that there is a genetic basis for all known personality traits which can have life-long implications. If guilt is a personality trait, as the present researchers claim, then it, too, must be largely genetic. This would make sense since we know that the major characteristic of some antisocial personality disorders—most obviously psychopathy and narcissism—is freedom from any sense of guilt for their actions. We know that these disorders are largely genetic. The genome of these people must, obviously, lack the gene for the “guilt” trait.

My own belief is that the genetic basis of guilt is somehow linked to the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) and the oxytocin reward system which largely governs our relationships and bonding. The lack of an ability to bond and have mutually supportive relationships is therefore due to the lack of OXTR or the malfunctioning of it. This is the basis of not having a sense of guilt.

I am sure that in the nearish future all prospective employees will be subject to a swab to determine their personality traits and job suitability. We already know that the drive to be a leader, concentration, attention to detail, breadth of vision, entrepreneurship and collaboration are very largely genetically determined, even if we do not yet know the particular genes responsible.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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