FIFA scandal: The science behind corruption

What causes some organizations to become rife with corruption? The answer has little to do with an individual's personal morality, say experts.

Ennio Leanza/Keystone via AP
FIFA President Sepp Blatter attends a press conference following the FIFA Executive Committee meeting in Zurich, Switzerland, on Saturday.

The soccer world is abuzz with the allegations that officials at FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) engaged in racketeering, money laundering and other criminal activities.

Officials at FIFA engaged in a "24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer," according to a statement released by the United States Department of Justice on Wednesday (May 27).

But while it's tempting to blame such activities on poor morals, research shows that corruption — or abuse of power for private gain — is far more complicated, said Marina Zaloznaya, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Iowa.

Corruption can span large groups — such as organizations or even the populations of entire nations — if the majority of the people within them find bribery and other forms of corruption to be commonplace, Zaloznaya said. [Understanding the 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]

Organizations with widespread corruption typically develop cultures that justify and encourage corruption, often so much that corruption becomes routine and isn't viewed as an offense, Zaloznaya said.

"Simply put, in the course of everyday organizational lives, organizational members are more likely to do what others around them consider 'normal' and 'justified' than what they personally practice or believe to be 'normal' outside the organizations," Zaloznaya told Live Science in an email.

It doesn't matter what kind of morals or personality a person has: "Anybody can do it if they happen to be influenced by the 'wrong' type of organizational culture," especially one with lax regulations, she said.

Corruption ingredients

There are many facets of an organization that can lead to corruption, but Zaloznaya focused on three important ones.

First, people may perceive that there is a "need" to engage in corruption, she said. "For instance, low salaries or red tape may create a perception that accepting or giving bribes is necessary to make ends meet," or to get things done within the organization, she said.

Second, people tend to engage in corruption if they don't think they'll get caught and punished, or if they think the punishments will be light, she said.

Finally, corruption is influenced by an organization's culture. When corruption becomes institutionalized and familiar, people are "more likely to partake in illicit exchanges," Zaloznaya said.

Christopher Yenkey, an assistant professor of organizations and strategy at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said that the allegations indeed make it seem that corruption was accepted in FIFA's culture.

Yenkey pointed to the example of Chuck Blazer, a former official with FIFA and Concacaf, a governing group that oversees soccer in the North American, Central American and Caribbean region, who pled guilty in 2013 to charges that he engaged in racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering and income tax evasion, according to The New York Times.

A 2013 Concacaf report found that from 1996 to 2011, Blazer received about $20.6 million in payments from commissions, fees and rental payments, most of it with little oversight, the Times reported.

But when he left Concacaf and FIFA, Blazer said he was "perfectly satisfied," adding that he did "an excellent job." He gave himself credit for the organization's "good levels of income," according to the Times.

"It just tells you that this [allegedly] is a normal practice," Yenkey said. Blazer likely saw his millions "as part of his compensation package," Yenkey said. [Top 10 Mysteries of the Mind]

Corruption can grow out of cultures "where this kind of behavior is considered normal — it's not considered illegal or immoral — and sort of 'everybody's doing it,'" Yenkey said.

In the FIFA case, Blazer has become a cooperative witness, and helped the U.S. government learn about the organization, the Times reported.

Fixing & preventing corruption

Once corruption is entrenched as a common practice, it can be incredibly hard to fix, said Ifeoma Ajunwa, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia Law School.

That's why preventing it is important. "Transparency is key," Ajunwa said in an email. Institutions can try to prevent corruption by "designing the organization in such a way that all transactions are done out in the open and with adequate oversight."

Also, organizations can hold classes that teach business ethics and anti-corruption policies, Ajunwa said.

To stop corruption once it has started, organizations have to change their entire culture, experts said.

"A concerted effort to create an environment that discourages corruption and defines it as unacceptable, unfeasible and reprehensible," is what is needed to stop corruption, Zaloznaya said.  

However, it can take a powerful outside entity, such as the U.S. or Swiss government, to charge corrupt offenders, Yenkey said.In the FIFA case, there didn't appear to be a push from inside the organization to stop corruption, he said.

Follow Laura Geggel on Twitter @LauraGeggel. Follow Live Science @livescienceFacebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

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