Why do we steal?

There is a saying in Bahasa Indonesia, “Kejahatan akan terjadi jika ada kesempatan dan ada keinginan“, a crime will occur if there is an opportunity and a will to commit the crime”. Two main factors contributing to committing crimes are boiled down to these two aspects; opportunity and willingness.  What about corrupt behaviours? Is it as simple as these two ingredients too?  What does the literature say about factors that contribute to unethical behaviour?  It’s easy to pass judgement and act when people with fraudulent practices are politicians or public officials reported on the evening news, but what do you make of if the perpetrator is someone that you are close with? A family or a close friend maybe? Finally, what can we do to prevent corrupt behaviours? I wanted to find the answers to these questions at least to quench my curiosity and learn something from the process.

Corrupt behaviours come in many forms, and we can see them in our everyday lives, ranging from petty thefts to big scandals we saw on the national televisions.

  • During office hours, instead of working we spend our time playing online games or browsing Instagram posts
  • Marking up prices of goods we procure for self-gain
  • Falsifying travel receipts for reimbursement
  • Enjoying benefits from vendors that provide services to the company
  • Keeping aside some donations you help channelling
  • Prioritising our families and relatives and people we know when distributing public goods in an emergency situation
  • Helping people that we know in a selection process or a tender (non-financial return)
  • Obtaining commissions of the decisions we make for projects (financial gain)

Why are we corrupt?

Negative implications of corruptions are not contestable, and they affect our lives. Inefficiency in productivity, degrading public services, slowing down of the economy and environmental damage. Although highly relevant, I am not so interested in delving into causes of corruptions at the macro level. I’m more intrigued in understanding the logic behind someone’s decision to commit fraud,  what drives individuals to be corrupt, in short, a person’s cognitive process to act unethically.

(Rational behaviour theory) A traditional school of thought explains that dishonest behaviour is actually a rational decision that someone makes. In line with the Indonesian proverbs I quoted earlier, people assess the situation, estimate the benefits, weigh the risks and consequences of being caught, then commit the corruption. If the chances of getting caught are manageable, the consequences are minimum, and the benefits outweigh the consequences, people will seize the opportunity. This view argues that people are rational. Corrupt behaviour is born out of deliberate thinking we make of how to steal and get away with it. It happens when we see there is an opportunity,  driven by a lack of resources, or simply greed, usually for those who are in power.

(Realist – Context, Mechanisms and Outcome, or CMO configuration)  The realist school of thought that branches out to the realist evaluation field offers an explanation of why one’s behaviour can change. It posits that an outcome is triggered by an underlying mechanism acting in a context.  Proponents of this theory took an example from the use of CCTV to deter crime. From researches conducted in the UK, Pawson and Tilley (1997) argued that crimes were reduced not because of CCTVs installed in the car parks. CCTVs are objects, and they couldn’t do anything to the crime perpetrators. They argued eight underlying mechanism and six specific contexts where CCTVS were sufficient to reduce crimes at the car parks.

An example was, “caught in the act mechanism” can reduce crimes (outcome),  if the offenders were detected, arrested and punished. However, this mechanism could only be useful in the criminal clustering context. 

In our case, corrupt behaviour (outcome) could be triggered by the underlying mechanism of, “they won’t notice”  that is effective in a context where financial or performance check and assessment are particularly weak, a loophole in the system.


(Behavioural Economics – If given opportunity we tend to lie) Dan Ariely (2008), a famous proponent of behavioural economics, found that when given opportunity, even for honest people, they will cheat. Conducting a series of social experiment involving students at world ranking universities such as Harvard, MIT, Princeton, UCLA and Yale, he compared the following different groups.

  • (Control) – Students were given a set of questions, then submitted their answer sheets, the researchers checked the answers and the students were given money per correct answer
  • (Condition 1) – Students did the test, self-checked their answers, informed the researchers. Same incentives were given for the correct answers
  • (Condition 2) – Students did the test, self-checked the answers, shredded the worksheets, informed the researchers of their results, got paid for the correct answers.
  • (Condition 3) – Students did the test, self-checked the answers, destroyed the sheets, and took the money from a jar themselves based on the correct answers they self-checked.

The study found that students lied for condition 2 – 4, the average correct answers were higher than the control group. However, no difference was seen among the three treatments. Even though I’d like to suspect that condition 3 was the most vulnerable situation, in actuality, the students didn’t lie and profit recklessly. So the majority of people lie but not so wildly dishonest even though opportunities are presented to them. This is intriguing to me.

Ariely and colleagues then adjusted the experimental conditions of the above study and found that people would not cheat if reminded in one way or another about honesty. In the adjusted study, Ariely asked people to cite Ten commandments or sign a statement about an honour code before taking the test. in the end, they did not cheat at all.

So now we know that dishonesty, unethical act such as corruption could stem from a well-calculated cost and benefit analysis (rational behaviour theory) and we also know that an intended or unintended behaviour change would show up if a person is placed in the right context with the presence of an appropriate mechanism (realist theory). We need to be aware of our tendency to lie and cheat if there is no reminder or thought about standards of morality (behavioural economics).   

Why do we tend to be more permissive to those who are close to us when they are corrupt?

A public official was presented in front of the TV handcuffed and wearing an orange prison suit. The speaker of our national corruption commission clarified to the public of the corruption case.  Some people were contempt, but others were feeling sorry to him. To me, it’s simple, clear logic. The person stole the money for self-gain, he got caught, and now he had to pay the consequences. I don’t feel sorry to him or his family. Justice prevails. Well, apparently it’s not that simple. Some people would feel sorry to him and what happened to the family. They could see there were some ‘justifiable’ reasons why he had to steal the money. They rationalised his decision despite his repeated acts of stealing people’s money and the whole complex operations he had run. So why do we have different reactions?

I had to rely on social psychology and behavioural economics fields of study in this case. A particular bias to blame is “the liking or the loving bias”. This is the tendency to judge in favour of the people that we like. This is the reason why we love ideas from people that we like and admire. We tend to agree to people that we identify belonging to the same group. We are even more likely to become more understanding and ignore the faults of our friends and families, thus more permissive of the corrupt practices they have committed.

How do we prevent corrupt practices?

Now I come to the last question, how do we prevent corrupt practices? Let me share a real experience I had in cutting corners or being dishonest. Of course, I’m guilty of quite a few, but this one was interesting and a bit funny too. It was twenty years ago in the year 2000 during the Sydney Olympics. I studied and lived in Sydney, Australia, for a couple of years. During that time, we were on semester break, and I worked at the Olympic village and was assigned to the athlete kitchen scrubbing and cleaning stoves.

After working for a couple of weeks, I noticed that control of working hours was not so strict. There was a high level of trust and confidence from the management to the staff. Supervisors were not observing us around the clock. I think due to the sheer size of the working environment, it made it difficult to watch people one by one.

I was working in a big kitchen, as big as a football field. We worked for about 8 to 10 hours a day with a 15-minute short break every 2 hours and 45 minutes for the lunch break. There was this Chinese guy whom I became friend with. He was born and grew up in Sydney. Despite his Chinese look, he had a thick Aussie accent. Unfortunately, I already forgot his name.

One day we both went for a lunch break at the staff dining hall also as big as a football field. About 45 minutes passed, he was ready to return to the kitchen. I said to him,

Relax, no one will notice let’s stay for 15 minutes more”. 

“Why?? why do we have to do that?” He was puzzled and reluctantly agreed.

We then committed this corrupt practice for a couple more days. Then other workers started to notice. One of them reported us to our supervisor. On that lucky day, we were told to stay back for another hour or two to pay back the hours that we had stolen days before. Boy, did we scrub some ugly dirty pots, pans and stoves that day! We learned our lessons, or I should say, I learned my lesson, and we didn’t do that anymore. The Chinese guy was so upset with me, that he decided he had enough of me. He didn’t want to be on the same team anymore. I’d like to think that he might have decided that part-time work at the Olympics didn’t fit with his future career. That’s why he left.

Now I didn’t come to the kitchen in the first place, already developing a dubious plan in my mind to be corrupt. I was honest, but the opportunity was presented in front of me. So far we have learned that if given the opportunity human tend to lie, although not by much. That was exactly what happened. I was corrupt and manipulated the system by stealing 15 – 30 minutes of our break time. The best thing was the system did not allow this to continue, a code of conduct applied in this case and we paid the consequences by working for the hours that we stole.

So these are some key lessons from my quest in understanding more about the psychology of corruption.

  • People are honest until the opportunity is available for them to lie, cheat and corrupt, and they will.
  • However, not everyone will abuse the system to steal a lot. The majority will steal to a certain limit of his/her standards of morality would allow.
  • Being reminded of morality is effective, be it from religious teachings or as simple as companies’ code of conduct. I was sceptical about it after listening to so many poor quality khutbahs on Jummah prayers in Jakarta. But it seems the evidence from social experiments shows that these reminders, be it religious or non-religious, are useful if conducted at the right time.
  • Beware of the liking / loving bias. Stealing is a crime, even when it happens to our close friends or relatives. They have to face the consequences. This is the reason why we should ‘treat’ our shopping experience to a store as if we dislike the salesperson. Only then, we can focus more on the product he/she is selling instead of being led blindly by our liking/loving bias of his/her being charming and attractive. Now you wonder why the salespersons are always good looking and attractive heh?
  • Consequences are important. If they are not there, it won’t stimulate the “fear of being caught or fear of implications” mechanism. Borrowing the CMO configuration before, if corrupt behaviours are unpunished and let go, by the way, yes, I do consider playing online games during office hours as unethical behaviour unless you’re working for an online gaming company to test their new prototype product, such behaviour causes other people who witness the behaviour to lose confidence in the system (Context). When it is complemented by the mechanism of “it’s okay, they won’t notice, or they don’t care”, it will eventually trigger the outcome of other people who are initially honest become eventually dishonest and corrupt.


Pawson, R and Tilley, N. 1997. Realistic Evaluation. Sage

Ariely, D. 2008. Predictably Irrational. The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. Revised and Expanded Decision. Harper.

One Reply to “Why do we steal?”

  1. Only you, turned an ugly experience about stealing into an essay with academic references. If it were me, I would have written about me slapping the person with a chair.

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