Public Sector Corruption – Exploring the Micro-foundations of Bribery and Prosocial Rule-Breaking

Cumulative habilitation project of Dr. Kristina S. Weissmüller supervised by Prof. Dr. Adrian Ritz

Public sector corruption is a common, but severely understudied, phenomenon in Public Administration (PA). Public sector corruption – e.g., in the form of bribery and rule-breaking – causes inequality in access to public services and results in inefficient allocation of resources, undermining the equity principle that lies at the heart of bureaucracies worldwide. Public sector corruption seriously undermines the general public’s trust in government and other public institutions. Prior research trying to examine the origins of public sector corruption traditionally use three different lenses, assuming that either

  1. the institutional context of country-specific cultures and traditions of administration is to be held accountable (Gelbrich et al., 2016; Hogdson & Jiang, 2007; Li et al., 2008; Navot et al., 2016; Sööt & Rootalu, 2012),
  2. organizational structures and dynamics are the key driving forces (Aguilera & Vadera, 2008; den Nieuwenboer & Kaptein, 2008; Frost & Tischer, 2014; Moore, 2008), or
  3. or identify individual character traits as determinants of deviant behavior (Bolino & Grant, 2016; Moore et al., 2012; Ripoll, 2019; Weißmüller et al., 2020).

To date, there is neither sufficient empirical evidence supporting either lens, nor a unified theory of public sector corruption. The central aim of this habilitation project is to close this research gap by advancing theoretical insights by collecting rich evidence about a selection of the main underlying mechanisms of public sector corruption and their interaction at the micro, meso, and macro level of behavior by conducting rigorous (quasi-)experimental research in fourteen countries.

In the spirit of Behavioral Public Administration, this habilitation research project responds to recent calls for more experimental work and empirical replication (van Witteloostuijn, 2016; Walker et al., 2019) by replicating my experimental studies within different sets of countries, organizations, and populations worldwide. That is, this research project involves a multi-lab design that combines rigorous multi-national and contextual replication and meta-analysis, employing both the method of agreement and difference. Furthermore, this habilitation project derives practical advice for public sector managers on ways to inform effective corruption prevention.


Aguilera, R. V., & Vadera, A. K. (2008). The dark side of authority: Antecedents, mechanisms, and outcomes of organizational corruption. Journal of Business Ethics, 77(4), 431–449.

Bolino, M. C., & Grant, A. M. (2016). The bright side of being prosocial at work, and the dark side, too: A review and agenda for research on other-oriented motives, behavior, and impact in organizations. The Academy of Management Annals, 10(1), 599–670.

den Nieuwenboer, N. A., & Kaptein, M. (2008). Spiraling down into corruption: A dynamic analysis of the social identity processes that cause corruption in organizations to grow. Journal of Business Ethics, 83(2), 133–146.

Frost, J., & Tischer, S. (2014). Unmasking collective corruption: The dynamics of corrupt routines. European Management Review, 11(3-4), 191–207.

Gelbrich, K., Stedham, Y., & Gäthke, D. (2016). Cultural discrepancy and national corruption: Investigating the difference between cultural values and practices and its relationship to corrupt behavior. Business Ethics Quarterly, 26(2), 201–225.

Hogdson, G. M., & Jiang, S. (2007). The economics of corruption and the corruption of economics: An institutionalist perspective. Journal of Economic Issues, 41(4), 1043–1061.

Li, J., Moy, J., Lam, K., & Chris Chu, W. L. (2008). Institutional pillars and corruption at the societal level. Journal of Business Ethics, 83(2), 327–339.

Moore, C. (2008). Moral disengagement in processes of organizational corruption. Journal of Business Ethics, 80(1), 129–139.

Moore, C., Detert, J. R., Klebe Treviño, L., Baker, V. L., & Mayer, D. M. (2012). Why employees do bad things: Moral disengagement and unethical organizational behavior. Personnel Psychology, 65(1), 1–48.

Navot, D., Reingewertz, Y., & Cohen, N. (2016). Speed or greed? High wages and corruption among public servants. Administration & Society, 48(5), 580–601.

Ripoll, G. (2019). Disentangling the relationship between public service motivation and ethics: An interdisciplinary approach. Perspectives on Public Management and Governance, 2(1), 21–37.

Sööt, M.‑L., & Rootalu, K. (2012). Institutional trust and opinions of corruption. Public Administration and Development, 32(1), 82–95.

van Witteloostuijn, A. (2016). What happened to Popperian falsification? Publishing neutral and negative findings. Cross Cultural & Strategic Management, 23(3), 481–508.

Walker, R. M., Brewer, G. A., Lee, M. J., Petrovsky, N., & van Witteloostuijn, A. (2019). Best practice recommendations for replicating experiments in Public Administration. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 29(4), 658.

Weißmüller, K. S., De Waele, L., & van Witteloostuijn, A. (2020). Public service motivation and prosocial rule-breaking: An international vignettes study in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 1-29.