Corruption is higher in countries with lower incomes according to Victoria University research that compared changes in levels of corruption in 59 countries over nearly 30 years.
Dr Ron Fischer from the School of Psychology and Master’s graduate Seini O’Connor conducted the study which has been published by the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.
Their findings challenge a widely held view that there is a culture of corruption in traditional societies and that societies with higher corruption should import institutions from, and emulate the values of, low corruption societies says Dr Fischer.
"Within countries, the one thing that makes a difference over time is wealth. The results suggest we don’t have to modernise societies or change traditional systems to reduce corruption."
Seini O’Connor says there are lots of reasons for corrupt behaviour.
"In low income countries, the poorest people may be stealing or paying bribes to get services because they are desperate, and the rich may be demanding bribes and taking kick-backs on big contracts because they are powerful and can get away with it.
"It’s all about the opportunities and incentives people face."
The global study examined data from 1980 to 2008 and is one of the only longitudinal studies that investigates both cultural and economic factors influencing levels of corruption. In addition to income levels (GDP per capita), the researchers compared other factors such as government spending (as in indicator of government size), the voting system and participation rates (as indicators of democracy), and social values.
They also looked at what separates countries with higher and lower levels of corruption.
Dr Fischer says they found those which are wealthier, value things like quality of life, free expression and tolerance, and have larger governments, tend to be less corrupt.
Larger governments are sometimes thought to provide opportunities for corruption because more people are able to have a "finger in the pie" but the Victoria research found this wasn’t true.
"It’s about the size of government not whether it is democratic. Countries with larger governments are likely to provide more social services and employment opportunities and have more law enforcement agents. That reduces the need for corruption and increases the chance of being caught," says Dr Fischer.
Dr Fischer is continuing his research into corruption with collaborators in Brazil where the team is investigating how media images influence the likelihood of people engaging in corrupt behaviour.
"We’re looking at whether media coverage of corrupt politicians or police officers, for example, makes the behaviour more palatable."