09/07/2016 8:51 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST

Do Our Virtues Give Us A License For Corruption?

Corruption concept. flat design. vector illustration
wichai leesawatwong via Getty Images
Corruption concept. flat design. vector illustration

Research and data can lead to some rather interesting theories. A recent study by two academics -- Uma Karmakar of Harvard Business School and Bryan Bollinger of Duke University's Fuqua School Of Business -- threw up an intriguing argument.

Their research suggested that shoppers who bring reusable bags for their shopping tend to choose organic food. One green action led to another. However, the same people were also most likely to buy ice cream, chips, candy bars and cookies. These shoppers weren't replacing green items with junk. They were just adding junk to the cart.

In an interview, Uma Karmarkar explained the phenomenon in simple terms:

In consumer psychology the word "licensing" is the key. If I behave well in one situation, I give myself license to misbehave in another, unrelated situation. Similar research has also been done on health decisions. I get a Diet Coke; I treat myself to a hamburger. In this case bringing a bag makes you think you're environmentally friendly, so you get some ice cream. You feel you've earned it.

Here I want to focus on her postulation that "licensing is the key."

License to indulge, in this case.

But also, in my opinion, license to be corrupt.

Now, I don't use the world "corrupt" in its strictest financial sense. Corruption is a simple word that implies questionable intent -- wherein individuals don't do what they are supposed to do or they do what they aren't supposed to do.

Here, in my most simplified connotation, corruption means diluted intent.

A simplified parallel can be drawn between the "green" shoppers in the research above and CEOs/top executives who tom-tom their achievements and politicians who pretend to be paragons of virtue.

Watch out when someone makes a big production out of using recyclable bags, or talks a little too virtuously about their honesty.

Boards and top leaders must keep a careful eye on those who are loud, brash, over-confident of their performance and who cannot stop advertising their accomplishments. In large corporations, one often comes across executives who are always on the right side of everything, whose integrity is unquestionable, who seem invincible in tricky situations... in short, people who just seem to be too good to be true. These could be the very people who actually have plenty in common with the likes of Jeffrey Skilling of Enron, Martha Stewart or Carly Fiorina, all of whom put their business and its reputation in harm's way.

Politicians aren't terribly different. The most corrupt politicians are the ones who make the biggest show of doing public service. India has a huge concept of farm and gas subsidies paid by a combination of fiscal deficit and taxpayers' money. But only a fraction reaches the end user. Still, the powers that be seldom show a real intent to weed out this structural flaw in public distribution because this money in some form or the other finds its way back into the politicians' personal coffers. The more money is allocated for infrastructure, the more we hear of people vanishing in open gutters during rains in India.

Bertrand Russell rightly quipped, "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts."

So, next time, watch out when someone makes a big production out of using recyclable bags at the grocery store or talks a little too virtuously about

their honesty and righteousness.

A version of this blog was first posted here.

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