Academic journal article Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry

Examining the Relationship between Personality Characteristics and Unethical Behaviors Resulting in Economic Crime

Academic journal article Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry

Examining the Relationship between Personality Characteristics and Unethical Behaviors Resulting in Economic Crime

Article excerpt

The current downward economic spiral in the United States has forced difficult, sometimes unethical financial decisions brought to public attention by high-profile offenders. Previous research has not supported personality as a significant factor in white-collar crime (Alalehto, 2003; Blickle, Schlegel, Fassbender, & Klein, 2006; Freeley, 2006). Current data and small research efforts indicate that some personality traits are more evident than others in the case of economic crime. Systematically examining personality traits as a factor in instances of embezzlement and fraudulent acts may provide insight into profiling or deterring criminal behavior. Research examining personality and fraudulent behavior is warranted.

Keywords: personality traits; economic crime; type A/B; criminality; white-collar crime

Do individuals with the same opportunity, competence, and position because of their personalities have a greater propensity to commit economic crimes? In 1939, the pioneering criminologist Edwin H. Sutherland created the term "white-collar crime," meaning a crime committed by someone with respectability and high social status in the course of their occupation (Sutherland, 1949). A current definition of white-collar crime is nonviolent crime for financial gain committed by means of deception (Blickle, 2006). Sutherland theorized that criminal behavior, specifically white-collar crime, is learned through association and interactions with others. Personality was not considered to be a significant factor. His differential association theory offered a plausible explanation for the motivation and skills acquired to engage in criminal deviance but not necessarily the impetus (Sutherland, 1949). He focused on the how criminals emerge but not necessarily why. Sutherland's work was so widely accepted that research examining personality as a factor in economic crime was sparse until recently. There now appears to be an opportunity to reassess personality as a contributing factor in economic criminal behavior.

We are consistently surprised with news of people in high-profile corporate positions committing crimes or acts of misconduct. The media are quick to report crimes involving individuals that the public would normally espouse as pillars of success. Martha Stewart, Bernard Ebbers, Ken Lay, and Bernie Madoff exemplify those highly public individuals whose behavior choices have caused many to ponder why. Yet economic crimes are not delegated only to the famous. We are confronted with news of improprieties by people in our immediate communities, friends, or family members. We seem to be in a contagious epidemic as described by Gladwell (2000) in his book The Tipping Point . Gladwell denotes that crime is a triad involving people, misconduct, and the environment. Certainly, the global economic crisis we are currently experiencing sets the stage for desperate financial measures. However, why do some people decide to commit unethical actions and others in the same situation choose responsible behaviors?


Economic crime was examined by KPMG Forensic, an audit, tax, and advisory firm, in its 2008-2009 integrity survey, examining corporate fraud and misconduct based on experiences and perceptions of more than 5,000 employees nationally across 13 different industries. KPMG (2009) placed types of misconduct into six categories:

* Compromising customer or marketplace trust-This includes demonstrating false or deceptive sales practices, submitting false invoices, market rigging, improperly gathering confidential information, fabricating product or safety test results, or violating contract terms.

* Compromising shareholder or organizational trust-Behaviors included in this category are falsifying financial reporting information, stealing assets, falsifying time-and-expense reports, breaching computer controls, mishandling confidential information, trading securities based on "inside" information, conflict of interest, or abusing organizational resources. …

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