Political Corruption and Cultural Inertia

One of the more common topics of discussion here in Mexico is government corruption. It is a widely held belief that those with power abuse it for their own ends. Complaints abound but with no solutions.

I think that cultural inertia plays a role — other people’s perception of our behavior affects the way that we actually end up behaving. Corruption clearly occurs in every government, but the public perception of the commonness of that corruption propagates it.

For example, in America, even though we may not like every police officer, we very much expect them to honest and upright. If a police officer is not, the public outcry is loud and a harsh punishment comes swiftly. The result is that many policemen take pride in their integrity because it is part of everyone’s perception of their job.

In Mexico, however, the populous starts with the assumption that if you are a policeman, you are likely corrupt. This significantly reduces their resistance to temptation. If they do what is right, it doesn’t change the perception of their job. So when temptation comes, it’s easy to live down to the public’s expectations, and give in — after all, everyone else must be doing it, or there wouldn’t be this perception.  Ironically, it tends to be the public that offers the greatest opportunity for temptation.

Clearly, there are many corrupt people in power in the US and there are many high integrity people in the Mexican power hierarchy, but the public perception of those in power can indeed influence their behavior.

This idea is supported by several behavioral economics studies discussed in the book Nudge [which I recommend]. In several studies, they found that by merely suggesting things like: “The majority of teenagers choose not to smoke”, or “97% of taxpayers pay their taxes honestly” changes people’s perception of what others are doing and thereby changes their own. In the end, the only way to end corruption is to work toward changing the popular perception of those in power. Clearly, not an easy thing to do. But a very good example of a self-referential cycle that is difficult to change because of Cultural Inertia.

[Read the Related Post: Cultural Inertia].






2 responses to “Political Corruption and Cultural Inertia”

  1. The Other Matt Avatar

    This reminds me of something I heard within the past year about signs that some hotels are starting to put in their bathrooms. Instead of the typical, “Help us reduce water waste and keep the envrionment clean by reusing your towels,” some have gone to “8 out of 10 guests (or some other made-up statistic) in our hotel decide to reuse their towels and save the environmet.”

    You’re exactly right that many of us behave out of curltural inertia. We long to fit in and “be normal.”

  2. Wawelo Diana Kermu Avatar
    Wawelo Diana Kermu

    Thank you for all your presentations! Could you help me explain how culture inertia and culture lag can hinder development?

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