The Corrupt Person – Just Like You and Me?

"We're all friends here."

It’s well-known that crime is related to personality. The so-called Dark Triad traits of Psychopathy, Machiavellianism and Narcissism are more common in criminals than in the rest of the population. Basically, these individuals are impulsive, manipulative, self-centered and callous. Now, corruption is a form of crime so it would make sense that it too related to personality, especially to those traits mentioned above.

Unfortunately, there are no individual measures of corruption. Most of this activity is hard to detect directly so it’s measured indirectly by asking people how corrupt they perceive their environment, like their nation for instance.  And such a measure, like the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI ), can then be compared to national averages of personality traits. That should give at least a hint of if and the two are related.

The Data

I haven’t found any international studies on the Dark Triad, so I compared international personality data compiled by psychologist Richard Lynn (1995) using the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ).  This measure has at least one scale, Psychoticism, that has been clearly related to crime. In spite of its name it is a trait very similar to Psychopathy which is common in the prison population. I compared the EPQ data with the global anti-corruption organization Transparency International’s CPI (2012). There are some flaws in that the comparison refers to different years, but things don’t seem to change that much in either personality or corruption so I don’t think it’s a big deal. And as you can see…


CPI on the y-axis and Psychoticism on the x-axis. Remember that CPI measures lack of corruption

CPI on the y-axis and Psychoticism on the x-axis. Remember that CPI measures lack of corruption


…it’s a miss! The CPI measures lack of corruption so the -0.13 means that the correlation is not contradicting the hypothesis but it’s way too low to make a case of. This only suggests that the corrupt person has a normal or slightly elevated level of Psychoticism. Let’s look at the two other traits of the EPQ, Extraversion and Neuroticism. Here are the scatter plots,

CPI on the y-axis and Extraversion on the x-axis.

CPI on the y-axis and Extraversion on the x-axis.


CPI on the y-axis and Neuroticism on the y-axis.

CPI on the y-axis and Neuroticism on the y-axis.


Both correlate stronger with corruption than Psychoticism does, although still not very impressive: -0.19 for Extraversion and -0.18 for Neuroticism. This indicates that the corrupt person is fairly normal. This makes sense from a statistical perspective. Few people would consider stealing a car or breaking into someone’s house. But lots of people will take and receive “gifts” to grease the wheels a little. If the corrupt person would be the same as the criminal then Psychopathy and other extreme personalities you see inside the prisons would be much more common in the general population. So it’s got to be a fairly common personality.


Then there is the matter of intelligence. There is hardly anyone who would contest that corruption and national averages of intelligence are inversely related. Looking at Lynn’s data this is very clear,

CPI on the y-axis and IQ on the x-axis.

CPI on the y-axis and IQ on the x-axis.


The correlation is -0.69 which is very respectable. A study from 2011 by economist Niklas Potrafke, also using data from Lynn and the CPI, found a 0.63 (using the inverse CPI). Clearly, intelligence is a much stronger factor, but a factor which is related to personality. In my data I found a -0.54 correlation between Extraversion and IQ.  Although there is no consensus on this, it seems like more studies today do find a negative correlation between Extraversion and intelligence on the individual level, although not by far as big as I found here using national averages. For instance, a recent study found a -0.2 correlation between Extraversion and vocabulary. Extraversion may be linked to corruption merely due to its link to low intelligence, but I suspect it is a contributing factor in its own right, more on that later.

So, based on these figures, who is he, the corrupt person? An Average Joe? The data from Lynn suggests that it might be a completely average person, or maybe someone who is a little more extraverted, emotionally unstable and…well psychopathic (it may not sound like it but it is a dimensional trait like the others).  But hardly anything that would strike anyone as out of the ordinary. His most conspicuous trait would be his low intelligence, and living in a country with a low average IQ even that would not be conspicuous to his fellow countrymen.

The Extraversion Hypothesis

That said, the EPQ is just one measure among many and the quality of data is no doubt increasing over time, so the picture will eventually grow clearer. The correlation with Extraversion remains intriguing and this traits relation to intelligence is still not clear. Corruption is most likely also situational which may account for some of the high corruption in Eastern Europe, which is still recovering from the collapse of communism. For Western Europe the Extraversion/corruption correlation is -0.31. So while, it’s clear that IQ is the major factor affecting corruption levels, it seems like Extraversion can have something to do with it as well.

The link to intelligence is of course interesting itself, since it is by no means evident why a country with a low IQ would be more corrupt. It’s easy to imagine a dishonest but intelligent person trying to beat the system with corruption, for instance. Potrafke suggests that intelligent people have  longer time perspectives so they realize that they win in the long run by not resorting to corruption. Personally, I don’t buy that explanation. Do people abstain from corruption because they’ve made some pragmatic calculation? No, I think it’s more visceral. Taking a bribe just doesn’t feel good. It’s a matter of shame. And those taking the bribes just don’t feel ashamed. Why not?

The Link to Tribalism

I would say they lack shame because of their tribalism. And I’m not just saying that because my previous post was about tribalism and it’s lingering in my head : ) It is a fact that the most tribal societies in the world can be found mainly in Africa and the Middle East. And this is where the IQ levels are the lowest and corruption the most spread.  Now, the highly tribal person will not look at the public good, he will look after the interests of his tribe. And if his society is made up by several such tribes – and they all are – then he will ignore the public good and side with his own. So he will have no qualms engaging in accts of corruption as long as it benefits his group. There is no shame in it because his “real” society is the tribe. Sure, he could help his tribe even more in the long run by co-operating, but tribalism dates back to a time when there was no such co-operation.

So tribalism can explain corruption, but it can also explain low intelligence. Tribalism means conforming to the group and not thinking for yourself. That alone should put a limit to the intellectual growth.  Tribal societies also show clear signs of inbreeding . Since they can’t trust foreigners, they marry their relatives, and that is a great way to decrease your IQ. So instead of assuming that low intelligence causes corruption, which intuitively makes little sense to me, tribalism can be the cause of both these factors.

And what does this have to do with Extraversion? As I mentioned in my previous post, tribalism should be viewed as a personality trait in its own right. But traits are rarely completely distinct from each other.  My suspicion is that the tribal person is more extraverted than the average. If your life is all about the group then you’re probably interacting with other group members a lot. This didn’t show up in the study I mentioned in the previous post, as some of you might remember. But that was just one study and the participants were all from America, a country with a fairly low level of corruption. It can be harder to detect there than in the more to the clan-based societies that actually show clear signs of inbreeding. (For more on inbreeding and its effect on society, check out hbd* chick.)

I’ll get back to this if I can find more data on inbreeding and extraversion. Lynns data do support this idea but there are just too few tribal countries in his sample. Who knows, this theory may even hold for some Western groups, like Christian conservatives.  I wouldn’t rule it out.


11 Responses to The Corrupt Person – Just Like You and Me?

  1. Luke Lea says:

    “So he will have no qualms engaging in accts of corruption as long as it benefits his group. There is no shame in it because his “real” society is the tribe.”

    Actually the shame runs the other way: he will be shamed by his relatives if he does not favor them. I’ve read accounts of this.

  2. Staffan says:

    That’s most likely true. I saw a documentary on BBC about gypsies. They filmed a gypsy woman with a little girl who was stealing for the woman. Then the girl went in to a church nearby and helped out with something. When she returned the woman beat her with a cane in broad daylight in front of lots of people (who did nothing to stop her).

  3. […] “The Corrupt Person – Just Like You and Me?” […]

  4. If one characterises lack of intelligence as strongly related to a lack of ability to cope with obstacles and get good things in the world, the corruption, both on an individual and a group level, can be seen as cheating because other, more difficult strategies are not accessible.

    hbd*chick has an interesting theory relating it all to the commonness of cousin marriage over time. Marrying first cousins both reduces intelligence and increases clan solidarity. Bake for five centuries or even twenty-five, and the resulting bread has an impenetrable crust.

    • Staffan says:

      That’s probably true, inclusive fitness increases. But even people who aren’t inbred show these tendencies so I suspect there is another factor involved as well: the simple fact that we have been living in small groups. We are selected for that kind of life.

  5. Luke Lea says:

    China is an example of an extraordinarily corrupt society with high general intelligence. A good place to start if you want to learn about China is here:

    • Staffan says:

      True, it probably related to things like the size of the country and how totalitarian the regime is as well. Chinese states with democracy – Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore – have much less corruption.

  6. […] certainly adds a piece to the puzzle of personality and corruption that I’ve been discussing in a previous post. In that post I found modest correlations between nation-level corruption and Extraversion, […]

  7. […] already posted about this in his terrific post on corruption a couple of months ago, but i thought i’d just reproduce niklas potrafke‘s chart of the […]

  8. taira says:

    Wow. That explains corruption in my native Philippines. Tribalism really is the cause of corruption and also extraversion. We Filipinos are the most extraverted (and also one of the dumbest) in Asia, which makes us really more prone to corruption. 😦

    • Staffan says:

      By now I’ve come to suspect that tribalism/clannishness is the major factor (although extraversion probably contributes as well, extraverts are less introspective). The tribal/clannish society is usually based on honor culture which includes the idea that if you do me a favor I’ll do you a favor and that’s how things get done. It’s not unreasonable to think this way when the state is too weak to uphold the law, but it also undermines any attempts to strengthen the state.

      Inbreeding seems to be the source of tribalism/clannishness so get rid of that and you may see improvement. But I gather your country is ruled by powerful families who look pretty clannish themselves. And you have those feuds, ridos, as well, suggesting that it’s common among regular folks too, especially in the south it seems. Tough road ahead…

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