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Public Knowledge About White-Collar Crime

Summary and Keywords

A considerable body of research on societal response to white-collar and corporate crime has evidenced a hardening of public attitudes, including increased perceived seriousness of upper-class criminality and punitiveness toward its perpetrators. These findings suggest that, over time, the public has gained a better understanding of white-collar crime and its deleterious social impact. However, none of the opinion surveys included a direct measure of public knowledge. As a result, it is difficult to determine to which extent U.S. citizens are objectively informed about crimes of the powerful. In fact, only a few studies have focused exclusively on the intersection between knowledge about white-collar crime and sentiment toward it. These scholarly efforts have concluded that the American people continue to underestimate the actual financial and physical consequences of white-collar crime, which may be the result of selective reporting by the mass media and biased research foci by scholars. By choosing to focus on traditional criminal law violations, such as homicide and theft, and relegating white-collar offenses to the rank of victimless crimes, journalists and criminologists have contributed to the construction and propagation of myths about upper-world criminality. In turn, continuous adherence to these myths might lead to polarized opinions about which type of penal policy to adopt against white-collar crime.

Keywords: public knowledge, perceived seriousness, punitiveness, white-collar crime, criminality


Three consecutive waves of research have monitored the evolution of Americans’ sentiments toward white-collar crime (Cullen, Hartman, & Jonson, 2009). Although none of the studies included a direct measure of knowledge, the studies still implicitly posited a relationship between public awareness and negative attitudes. For example, the first wave, conducted from the early 20th century to the 1970s, concluded there was relative inattention to the problem. As early as 1907, Ross argued that U.S. citizens were “woefully misinformed” about crimes committed by seemingly respectable businessmen. Similarly, Sutherland (1949) lamented the public indifference resulting from the complex and confusing nature of white-collar crime. In a survey of college students administered decades later, Reed and Reed (1975) confirmed that the concept was still arcane to many of their subjects. While Conklin (1977) objected to the notion of public apathy, he nonetheless agreed that a lack of objective information persisted among the citizenry. Phrased differently, while people had undoubtedly become more sensitized to the issue of white-collar crime, they remained unable to properly define it and to accurately estimate its social, financial, and even physical harm.

Perhaps as a result of well-publicized white-collar crime cases of considerable magnitude, the second wave of research on public opinion, which spanned the 1980s and 1990s, reported rising attention to the problem (Cullen, Clark, Cullen, & Mathers, 1985a; Cullen, Clark, Link, et al., 1985b; Cullen, Link, & Polanzi, 1982; Cullen, Mathers, Clark, & Cullen, 1983; Evans, Cullen, & Dubeck, 1993; Frank, Cullen, Travis, & Borntrager, 1989; Goff & Nason-Clark, 1989; Grabosky, Braithwaite, & Wilson, 1987; Hans & Ermann, 1989; Meier & Short, 1985; Rossi & Berk, 1997; Schrager & Short, 1980). In the early 21st century, a third wave of studies—including three congressionally funded national surveys—revealed increasingly negative perceptions of corporate crime and high-status offenders (Holtfreter, VanSlyke, Bratton, & Gertz, 2008; Huff, Desilets, & Kane, 2010; Kane & Wall, 2006; Levi, 2006, 2009; Piquero, Carmichael, & Piquero, 2008; Rebovich, Layne, Jiandani, & Hage, 2000; Schoepfer, Carmichael, & Piquero, 2007; Unnever, Benson, & Cullen, 2008). These antagonistic sentiments suggest greater exposure to factual information about white-collar crime and better comprehension of its societal impact. The term itself has become a household word. In recent years, it has been the focus of several popular movies (Boiler Room, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short), TV series (White Collar, House of Cards), and documentaries (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Blackfish, Meltdown: The Men Who Crashed the World). Despite white-collar crime’s common representation in popular culture, however, the switch from public apathy to social awakening was probably more the result of investigative journalism, which managed to expose actual cases of corporate malfeasance.

Media Coverage of White-Collar Crime

Exposing White-Collar Crime

As early as 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt commended journalists Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, David Graham Phillips, Ray Stannard Baker, Samuel Hopkins Adams, and Upton Sinclair for reporting on rampant corporate abuse and political corruption, although he still compared their aggressive tactics to “muckraking.” Sinclair’s seminal book The Jungle (1988), which denounced the appalling work conditions in the meatpacking industry and subsequent health risks for consumers, had a particularly strong impact on public perceptions of corporate wrongdoing.

The effect of increased awareness of upper-class criminality on public sentiments became especially significant in the early 1970s due to the convergence of several factors, including a period of sudden recession, which marked the end of the post-World War II economic expansion, the emergence of environmentalism, and the increased influence of the consumer movement, as well as a growing anti-authoritarian zeitgeist. Perhaps no other white-collar crime case defines that era better than the 1972−1974 Watergate scandal, which eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Although the Watergate scandal was technically not financially motivated, this political white-collar crime nonetheless comprised all key components of Sutherland’s original definition, including illegal activities committed by individuals of high social status and respectability in the course of their occupation. The case became public knowledge after two young journalists, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, exposed a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC, by five men with links to the Nixon Administration. The importance of the Watergate scandal cannot be overstated, as the revelation of espionage, illegal campaign financing practices, and presidential perjury left an enduring tarnish on the American people’s trust in their political institutions. To the extent that public outrage influences the legislative process, media revelations have the potential to galvanize public opinion and thus indirectly induce the criminal justice system to toughen its stance on white-collar crime.

For example, Swigert and Farrell (1980) noted that media coverage of the 1972 Ford Pinto case moved from an initial focus on a mechanical defect in the Pinto’s gas tank to suggesting that Ford actually knew about the risks posed by the flawed design but chose to manufacture the car anyway. This shift in orientation arguably changed public sentiments toward the case and encouraged the Attorney General of Indiana to initiate criminal proceedings against Ford (Cullen, Cavender, Maakestad, & Benson, 2014). In the 1980s, the increasing use of television as a vector of communication allowed for even more widespread dissemination of information about white-collar crimes, such as the savings and loan debacle, a case of collective embezzlement by several prominent financial institutions (Calavita, Pontell, & Tillman, 1997). In the last 30 years, the emergence and growing dominance of the Internet as an alternative news source also contributed to highlighting of the illegal practices of adored public figures, such as televangelist Jim Bakker, who was found guilty of accounting fraud, or TV mogul Martha Stewart, who was convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in a 2004 insider trading case. The rise of the Internet as a new medium also coincided with the exposure of some of the worst examples of human greed, including the Enron and WorldCom corporate fraud fiascos, which left thousands of American families bankrupt, and—more recently—Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, which cost investors an astounding $65 billion. In fact, the democratization of new technologies has offered con artists and swindlers a wide array of opportunities to prey on unsuspecting investors and clients. Consequently, it can be logically concluded that direct as well as vicarious (i.e., well-publicized) victimization has been responsible for the hardening of public attitudes reflected in the white-collar crime literature.

As previously mentioned, though, and despite laudable efforts, the vast majority of studies on perceptions of white-collar crime have not included an actual measure of public awareness. As a result, the extent to which the American public is informed about white-collar crime’s actual financial cost and physical harmfulness remains uncertain. Given the conceptual and definitional ambiguity of the white-collar crime construct (which is used to describe both occupational and avocational illegal activities, as well as both individual and organizational offenses), and the immense range of activities that it is meant to describe (including those that are legally defined as criminal, such as embezzlement, communications fraud and securities fraud, as well as socially injurious regulatory violations), significant sociodemographic variation in public knowledge is almost inevitable.

The Media Construction of White-Collar Crime

Another issue is the inherent bias in the way the mainstream media—from which public knowledge about crime is primarily derived (Dowler, 2003; Roberts & Doob, 1990; Surette, 1998)—report on white-collar crime. Despite the aforementioned journalistic efforts to expose elite deviance, research has established that street crime continues to dominate the media representation of crime (Barak, 1994; Barlow & Barlow, 2010; Ericson, Baranck, & Chan, 1991; Lynch, Nalla, & Miller, 1989; Lynch, Stretesky, & Hammond, 2000). This differential focus has two negative consequences. First, it results in resilient public myths about traditional crime, such as increasing crime rates (which have actually been steadily declining since the mid-1990s), the violent nature of most crime (in fact, property crime represents the bulk of illegal activities), a positive correlation between immigration and crime (a hypothesis denied by almost a century’s worth of criminological research), and the deterrent effect of punitive policies (e.g., mandatory sentences and the death penalty). Second, when white-collar crime makes the headlines, a clear preference is usually given to offenses causing financial, and not physical, harm (Barlow & Barlow, 2010), unless the latter is absolutely unavoidable (e.g., the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). Research suggests that mass media proprietors exert undue influence on the editorial line of newspapers and TV newscasts (Benediktsson, 2010; Levi, 2006; Robinson, 2011). The progressive concentration of media ownership by a few conglomerates through various mergers (Shah, 2009) may result in biased coverage of white-collar crime to avoid demonizing corporate America. Given corporations’ control over the news industry, it is reasonable to assume that special care is taken in silencing, underreporting, or at least trivializing cases of corporate wrongdoing that may result in physical harm (e.g., injuries, illnesses, and even deaths) for workers, customers, and citizens.

For example, Lynch, Nalla, and Miller (1989) analyzed and compared American and Indian media coverage of the deadly gas leak at Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. Their study revealed large differences in the way American and Indian media treated the information and in the choice of words used to describe the case. More specifically, U.S. journalists depicted the event as a “disaster” and Union Carbide (an American company) as the “victim.” Conversely, Indian media called the event a “crime” and referred to Union Carbide managers and executives as “offenders.”

In the same vein, Wright, Cullen, and Blankenship (1995) conducted a content analysis of newspaper coverage of the fire at the Imperial Food Products chicken-processing plant, which killed 25 workers and injured another 56 and resulted in the owner’s pleading guilty to manslaughter. The analysis revealed that newspaper reports did not try to minimize the seriousness of the event but actually focused on both the direct harm suffered by the victims and the indirect consequences for their families. Furthermore, newspapers clearly labeled the event “corporate violence” instead of an accident or a case of workers’ negligence. Nevertheless, they largely attributed the deaths to the lax enforcement of safety regulations and refused to use the term criminal to qualify the company. Moreover, they chose to not publicize the subsequent criminal convictions.

Slingerland, Copes, and Sloan (2006) examined the generalizability of the study by Wright and colleagues by conducting a content analysis of newspaper coverage of two events at nightclubs in Chicago, Illinois, and Warwick, Rhode Island. In the first case, private security officers hired for a musical performance broke up a fight using pepper spray that ended up causing burning eyes and vomiting among the entire crowd. Poor ventilation and insufficient exits and exit signs aggravated the situation. Panic struck and resulted in a stampede that claimed the lives of 25 patrons through asphyxiation and heart attacks and injured another 50. In the second case, pyrotechnic special effects used by the rock band Great White at an overcrowded club quickly spread to nonconforming soundproofing material on the walls, resulting in pungent smoke and flames, power outage (which turned off emergency exit signs), and the eventual collapse of the building. Over 100 patrons died that night and another 200 were seriously injured. Contrary to the findings of Wright and colleagues, Slingerland and his associates found that newspapers did discuss the extent of personal harm caused by the two disasters and the criminal sanctions that could potentially be imposed. Once again, however, the media rarely addressed whether the cases were due to an accident, negligence, or criminal behavior.

Similarly, Lofquist (1997) compared media coverage of two events—a street crime and a white-collar crime—that took place in Rochester, New York, in 1994. One was the abduction of a 4-year-old girl from in front of her home. The other was the collapse and flooding of a large salt mine. From the beginning, the abduction was described as “criminal,” whereas the mine collapse was “immediately and almost invariably” depicted as an “accident” whose primary victims were the mine owners. Such a double standard in the construction of white-collar crime is likely to contribute to the propagation of myths, which could potentially mitigate the public’s perceived seriousness of upper-class criminality. Once again, however, testing these hypotheses requires a direct measure of public knowledge.

White-Collar Crime Myths

Measuring Lay Knowledge About White-Collar Crime

In three consecutive iterations of the same project, Michel, Cochran, and Heide (Michel, Heide, & Cochran, 2015, 2016; Michel, Cochran, & Heide, 2016) provided the first measure of lay knowledge about white-collar crime. The purpose of the studies was (1) to determine the extent of information—or misinformation—about crimes of the powerful among the public, (2) to identify potential white-collar crime myths, and (3) to compare knowledge levels with perceived seriousness of upper-class criminality and punitiveness toward its perpetrators. The researchers first asked their subjects to self-rate their level of information using a single Likert-type item. This measure of subjective (i.e., perceived) knowledge was then compared against participants’ objective (i.e., actual) knowledge. To do so, Michel and colleagues developed a series of 10 multiple-choice and true-or-false items tapping various dimensions of the construct. The items included (1) the meaning of the term white-collar crime, (2) the immense financial cost of white-collar crime (Knowlton, Rotkin-Ellman, Geballe, Max, & Solomon, 2011; Landrigan, Schechter, Lipton, Fahs, & Schwartz, 2002; Leigh, 2011; Leigh, Markowitz, Fahls, & Landigran, 2000), (3) white-collar crime’s greater physical harmfulness relative to street crime (Herbert & Landrigan, 2000; Kramer, 1984; Lynch & Michalowski, 2006; Reiman & Leighton, 2010), (4) white-collar offenders’ relative legal immunity (Calavita, Tillman, & Pontell, 1997; Maddan, Hartley, Walker, & Miller, 2012; Tillman & Pontell, 1992), (5) reckless disregard for human life (illustrated by the Ford Pinto case), (6) the greater impact of medical crime relative to street crime (Starfield, 2000), (7) the equal presence of human trafficking in developed nations and in Third World countries to provide cheap labor (Bales, 2004; Bales & Soodalter, 2009; Gilmore, 2004), (8) the concept of state-corporate crime (illustrated by the Nisour Square massacre), (9) the issue of environmental racism (Bullard, 2012), and (10) corporations’ general reluctance to invest in cleaner energies (Benton, 1998; Frank & Lynch, 1992; Groombridge, 1998; Lane, 1998; Lynch, 1990; Lynch & Stretesky, 2003; South & Beirne, 2006). Each correct response to the 10 items was then entered into an additive scale. A majority of respondents scored poorly on that knowledge test. Overall, they seemed moderately well informed about the meaning of the metonymic white collar, the systematic dumping of toxic waste near African American communities, and corporations’ tendency to favor profit over the common good. They also knew about the greater financial impact of white-collar crime relative to that of street crime, although they had difficulty estimating it. On the other hand, they exhibited low levels of knowledge about the items that tapped the physical harmfulness of white-collar crime, human trafficking (which becomes white-collar crime when seemingly respectable companies connive with organized crime in order to obtain a cheap workforce), and white-collar offenders’ relative legal immunity.

Interestingly, a comparison of subjective and objective knowledge revealed that participants tended to overestimate their actual level of awareness. Michel and colleagues provided a second assessment of subjective knowledge by including a measure of answer confidence for each question. More specifically, subjects were invited to rate how confident they felt about their answers to the knowledge survey. Comparing this measure with participants’ correct and incorrect answers allowed for the creation of four categories of respondents: (1) truth accepters (i.e., high scores and high confidence), (2) lucky guessers (i.e., high scores and low confidence), (3) honestly misinformed subjects (i.e., low scores and low confidence), and (4) myth adherers (i.e., low scores and high confidence). By far the most salient white-collar crime myth that emerged in the studies was the physical harmlessness of upper-class criminality. In other words, subjects seemed almost systematically unwilling to concede that corporate violence (i.e., corporations’ calculated endangerment of civilians, employees, and customers) claims more lives every year than does criminal homicide. These findings support the hypothesis that the media’s tendency to underreport cases of corporate violence results in serious misconceptions about the deleteriousness of white-collar crime.

The Consequences of Public Knowledge About White-Collar Crime

The next step in Michel and colleagues’ project was to profile their respondents and to investigate the consequences of truth acceptance and myth adherence on sentiments toward white-collar crime. Correlational analyses between objective knowledge and sociodemographic characteristics revealed that better-informed subjects included those with higher education levels, without any religious affiliation, and who used the Internet as their main source of information. Conversely, less-knowledgeable participants and those more inclined to adhere to white-collar myths were predominantly politically and religiously conservative, as well as traditional media users. Furthermore, a comparison of knowledge about white-collar crime with general attitudes toward it (including perceived seriousness of several corporate crime cases and preference for severe punishment of their perpetrators) yielded positive relationships. On the other hand, myth adherers exhibited greater leniency. Taken together, these results suggest that increasing access to relevant information about white-collar crime could potentially result in even greater public condemnation of upper-class offenders, who continue to avoid criminal prosecution and sanctions at a higher rate than street criminals. They also imply, however, that not everyone would be equally susceptible to white-collar crime information.

It should be noted that Michel and colleagues’ three studies were limited by several methodological issues, including a nonprobability Internet sample, a preliminary but admittedly crude and incomplete measure of objective knowledge, and cross-sectional data that allowed only strictly correlational analyses and precluded any investigation of causality. Therefore, they could not formally test the hypothesis that exposure to information about white-collar crime results in more negative attitudes toward it. To do so would require the evaluation of a program meant to raise awareness about upper-class criminality.

Alternative Ways to Educate the Public

College Courses

Evidently, college courses are the most convenient way to disseminate pertinent information about white-collar crime and to assess the effect of increased knowledge on changes, if any, in students’ attitudes toward it. Nevertheless, white-collar crime courses are still underrepresented in university curricula relative to those focusing on street crime (Lynch, McGurrin, & Fenwick, 2004; McGurrin, Jarrell, Jahn, & Cochrane, 2013), although this gap is arguably less pronounced in 2018 than it was just a few years earlier. Another issue is the underrepresentation of white-collar crime in criminal justice journals and textbooks alike, and the tendency for authors to focus more on white-collar crime types that share an affinity for, or characteristics with, traditional criminal violations, such as organized crimes or professional crimes, as opposed to corporate, governmental, and state-corporate crimes (McGurrin et al., 2013).

Many scholars continue to define and measure white-collar crime by concentrating on the offense itself rather than on the offender. The result is a “de-collaring” of the construct (Pontell, 2016) via the inclusion of offenses committed by members of the middle class and even the working class with little to no association with the elite described by Sutherland. For example, the Yale white-collar crime project proposed to rely on federal statutes to profile white-collar offenders. The problem is that the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report includes only four measures of white-collar crime (i.e., embezzlement, fraud, counterfeiting, and forgery), which can be perpetrated by members of any social class. Evidently, this approach does not include regulatory violations and therefore leaves out many forms of corporate wrongdoing. This “operational trivialization” of white-collar crime (Pontell, 2016) illustrates the failure of criminology to regard it as a serious issue. Such recalcitrance in investigating elite deviance might be the byproduct of ideological conflict. That is, more conservative criminologists may be reluctant to conceptualize white-collar crime as the consequence of connivance between economic and political institutions (e.g., deregulation of markets, lenient statutes and sanctions, use of the military for war profiteering, etc.).

Yet another problem is the risk of sensitization and/or reactivity. More specifically, Michel’s attempt to monitor changes in attitudes toward upper-world criminality among a group of students enrolled in a white-collar and elite crime elective course (Michel, 2017) was plagued by several methodological flaws, including already negative attitudes on the pretest that did not significantly change at the end of the semester. Perhaps students were already informed and chose the class because of prior interest in the subject matter. Alternatively, they could have reacted in accordance with their professor’s self-avowed criticism of crimes of the powerful. Further, although a college course remains the perfect laboratory for observing the potential consequences of exposure to knowledge about white-collar crime, it cannot guarantee external validity. In fact, it is doubtful whether results obtained with undergraduate students might be generalizable to the general public. Even more uncertain is what educational program could be used to effectively raise awareness about white-collar crime on a much larger scale.

Consumer Awareness Programs

As previously mentioned, corporate media cannot be expected to report on upper-class criminality with full transparency. Still, the news industry has the potential to inform citizens and to help them identify and avoid various types of petty white-collar crime. Holtfreter, Reisig, and Blomberg (2005) conducted a consumer fraud survey in Florida—a state in which residents are particularly and disproportionately targeted by disaster-related fraud, such as home and repair scams after hurricanes—and compared its results with findings obtained in a national survey. The authors concluded that, thanks to informative and sustained media coverage of hurricane consumer fraud, Florida citizens seemed well informed and generally able to recognize and avoid the attempts to defraud them. The authors also noted that increased public awareness of the potential for fraud associated with more routine everyday activities, such as shopping, might be beneficial to the state’s residents. They therefore recommended conducting national surveys to identify state-by-state variation in consumer awareness and the development of targeted prevention and control policies programs to assist citizens in avoiding or dealing with consumer fraud. The effect of increased public knowledge about white-collar crime could then be measured by asking consumers how fraud-related media coverage and known program interventions influenced or changed their consumer-related behavior.

The Internet as an Educational Platform

The Internet may represent yet another vector of communication about white-collar crime. Recall that in the study by Michel and colleagues (2015), subjects who relied on online platforms as their main source of information were statistically better informed than traditional news media users. It could be that the better educated simply use their Internet connections for a range of purposes, while the less educated might limit themselves to local news reports. Alternatively, the Internet may provide access to foreign news media that openly discuss the issue of white-collar crime committed by American corporations as well as the U.S. government (Best, Chmielewski, & Krueger, 2005). Furthermore, because of their financial independence from any corporate donors, citizen journalists can assume the role of whistleblowers and denounce upper-class malfeasance via their use of popular social media. One considerable issue, though, is the lack of accountability inherent in such practice and the risk of propagating unfounded and potentially dangerous conspiracy theories.

One interesting alternative is the use of official online databases. In 2016, Utah became the first state to launch an online registry for white-collar crime offenders. Similar to websites that facilitate a free nationwide search for sex offenders registered by state, this database includes photographs of criminals convicted of second-degree felonies involving fraud in the last 10 years in Utah, as well as a brief description of their criminal violations. The rationale for the project was to take advantage of the Internet’s user-friendliness for better consumer protection. Despite its somewhat controversial nature—including the risk of negative stigmatization that could make rehabilitation for the convicted individuals complicated—this first effort has the potential to educate the citizenry about the myriad ways white-collar crime can victimize them and to send a clear message that the criminal justice system is finally beginning to toughen its stance, at least against individual offenders.

Resistance to Change

The Acceptability of White-Collar Crime Truths

One issue that research may want to consider is the acceptability of white-collar crime truths. Phrased differently, some individuals might be more susceptible to factual information—and more inclined to change their personal positions as a result—than others. Considerable sociodemographic variation already exists in public perceptions of upper-class criminality. For example, older respondents and those of lower socioeconomic status have been shown to rate white-collar crime as more serious than street crime (Grabosky, Braithwaite, & Wilson, 1987; Hauber, Toonvliet, & Willemse, 1988; Rebovich & Kane, 2002). African Americans also tend to rate corporate crime more negatively (Miethe, 1984; Unnever, Benson, & Cullen, 2008). Conversely, political and religious conservatives are usually more inclined to show leniency (Michel et al., 2016). These differences cannot be explained exclusively in terms of differential access to relevant information. Evidently, some professions directly expose employees to white-collar crime (e.g., banking and law enforcement), which might therefore heighten their perceived seriousness of it. However, the systemic exclusion of racial minorities and of the indigent from high-level corporate positions, as well as their higher risks of victimization at the hands of corporations (Bullard, 2012), could also account for their negative attitudes. Information about corporate wrongdoing is therefore expected to harden their positions. On the other hand, right-leaning individuals may be more difficult to convince. Recall that in the studies by Michel and colleagues, right-leaning participants were significantly more likely to be myth adherers. That is, not only were they misinformed about some white-collar crime facts—including its greater physical harmfulness relative to criminal homicide—but they also seemed to reject the facts by rating their incorrect answers with high confidence. One reason for this could be right-wingers’ traditional support for big business, which might lead them to exhibit greater tolerance toward individuals of respectability and high social status accused of committing crime in the course of their occupation (i.e., the very definition of white-collar crime proposed by Sutherland). In any case, the resilience of the myths may render right-leaning subjects immune to change. In other words, they might deny incriminating information about corporations or accept it but minimize its importance.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) proposes that individuals need to maintain a certain degree of consistency between their beliefs and their actions. Any information that may threaten this consistency can cause psychological imbalance (i.e., dissonance), resulting in an increased need to restore equilibrium. Three strategies can be used to resolve cognitive dissonance. The first is to deny the information, the second is to outweigh it with more consonant examples, and the third is to underplay its importance. Applied to white-collar crime myths, cognitive dissonance theory predicts similar rejection mechanisms among staunch right-wingers whose core beliefs (i.e., condemnation of crime and support for big business) may clash after exposure to inconvenient information about the physical harmfulness of corporate wrongdoing. As a result, these individuals may seek to reduce the ensuing dissonance by rejecting the information. For example, they might denounce it as socialist rhetoric that is injurious to business and, by extension, to the economy. They could also counter it with more consonant arguments. That is, they could argue that victims are only collateral damage of a system that nonetheless guarantees jobs and prosperity for a majority of citizens. They might also blame workers for their own negligence, or they might argue that state interventionism through increased regulation of the private sector (and thus reduced opportunities for corporate malfeasance) will result in economic stagnation. Last, they could trivialize the crime by claiming that corporate criminals are not as blameworthy as traditional offenders since their main motivation is never to harm their victims but ultimately to benefit the company and its shareholders. Such rationalization would serve to diminish the seriousness of white-collar crime even in the face of incontrovertible facts about its deadly consequences.

Michel (2018) tested these hypotheses by exposing his subjects to actual corporate violence cases and asking them to rate the cases’ credibility and seriousness before measuring the subjects’ attitudes toward several statements meant to justify the companies’ actions. While participants’ scores on nationalism and pro-business scales were for the most part unrelated to their perceived credibility of the scenarios, stauncher nationalists and capitalists tended to berate the seriousness of the offenses described. Moreover, several positive relationships emerged between nationalism and pro-business stance and the rationalization of corporate violence. The results confirmed that myth adherence can lead to the trivialization of inconvenient truths relative to crimes of the powerful, which would then undermine the effect of increased awareness on prosecutorial efforts against corporate crime in the United States.

Avenues for Future Research

In sum, increased exposure to white-collar crime via several well-publicized cases in the last four decades can explain the hardening of attitudes observed in recent national surveys. Americans are undeniably better informed about white-collar crime than they were when Sutherland first introduced the concept almost a century ago. Nevertheless, the media construction of white-collar crime as inherently victimless probably contributes to spreading misconceptions. In fact, the rare studies that have investigated the issue of lay knowledge about white-collar crime have identified several myths, the resilience of which and consequences for public perceptions of upper-class criminality are not well understood. While one could predict even more negative attitudes upon exposure to incriminating information about corporate violence, the veil of respectability that traditionally wraps large companies in America might block the acceptance of specific white-collar crime truths among business supporters. A research focus on the influence of myth adherence on public response to elite deviance is therefore warranted. Nevertheless, the very large methodological challenges in relation to survey research need to be taken into account. Beam (2012) argued that all survey research instruments inevitably produce unreliable and potentially inaccurate results, mainly because they fail to distinguish subjects’ actual behaviors (objective phenomena) from their true beliefs and opinions (subjective phenomena). Scholars interested in isolating the effect of knowledge—or lack thereof—on sentiments toward white-collar crime therefore ought to compare their participants’ answers with non-interrogative sources of information, such as direct observation, experimentation, model building and testing, and content analysis.


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