Where Is the Behavioral Insights Revolution in Anticorruption?

Behavioral economics—the application of insights from behavioral psychology to economic analysis and regulatory policy-making—is all the rage. In addition to the contributions of this synthesis to academic economics, research in behavioral economics has suggested the possibility of innovative, simple, low-cost policy interventions that can shift behavior in dramatic and productive ways, without as much reliance on the heavy hand of regulators. These so-called “nudges” (named after Richard Thaler’s and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge) include, for example, things like automatic enrollment in retirement plans, which appears to increase the amount of people saving for their retirement more than tax incentives do. The possibility of using nudges or other approaches inspired by behavioral economics has captured the imagination of politicians, international organizations, and others, and there are now approximately 200 so-called “nudge units” in governments around the world looking for ways to employ behavioral insights to solve public policy problems

This enthusiasm has spread to the field of anticorruption. (See here, here, and on this blog here and here). But, while there have been a handful of anecdotal reports of successful nudge-like interventions in this area (e.g. here), there has not yet been much elaboration of what sorts of concrete anticorruption innovations follow from a behavioral perspective, nor of the evidence base supporting these sorts of interventions. Indeed, there seems to be surprisingly little data about successful applications of behavioral insights in the fields of integrity and anticorruption. That’s why I was so excited when last year the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) published Behavioural Insights for Public Integrity: Harnessing the Human Factor to Counter Corruption, a report that, according to the OECD, is the “first comprehensive review of different strands of behavioral sciences to identify practical lessons for integrity policies.”

Alas, rather than providing systematic evidence on how applying behavioral insights can make anticorruption efforts more effective and using that evidence to recommend new integrity tools, the OECD report largely rehashes the last couple of decades of behavioral economics more generally, and makes it seem—at least to me—that, at least so far, behavioral science does not really suggest anything revolutionary for integrity and anticorruption, and there is little or no data-backed guidance on how to apply nudging to solve problems of integrity.

  • First, while the report provides a comprehensive overview of what a “human centered perspective on integrity systems should look like,” many seasoned anticorruption and integrity experts will probably find most of the findings to be a confirmation of familiar notions, just repackaged with behavioral jargon. The report lists thirteen factors that form a “shared vision of the core elements of an integrity system.” These factors include such well-known concepts as “tone from the top,” building capacity through trainings and timely guidance, ensuring that reporting lines are user-friendly, and other similar and familiar measures. This is not to diminish the importance of these insights. But when one is promised a behavioral insights “revolution,” and what one gets sounds like the set of good practice suggestions one would find in any decent integrity handbook, one starts to wonder whether there is all just a rebranding exercise, and the behavioral revolution in integrity is merely—as some critics have suggested more generally—”simply old wine in new bottles”.
  • Second, while it is true that the report does include some less conventional suggestions for how one can promote integrity through “nudges” or other changes  to what the behavioralist jargon calls “choice architecture,” there’s surprisingly little in the way of data-backed examples of how these interventions can work to promote integrity and reduce corruption. This may not be the fault of the report’s drafters so much as a consequence of the simple fact that, as of now, there’s surprisingly little data on whether the novel pro-integrity interventions suggested by behavioral economics actually work, nor clear ways to extrapolate the insights from other areas (like automatic enrollment in retirement savings programs) to the anticorruption field, which gives the recommendations a rather vague, abstract feel. The OECD report also asserts that integrity is too complex and broad an issue for it to be possible to assess whether it is affected by a particular nudge—but in that case one naturally wonders how confident we can be in the report’s assertion that behavioral insights can be used to increase the effectiveness of integrity policies.

Thus, despite the promise of the OECD’s report, it seems that it remains an open question whether the behavioral revolution will really bring significant new ideas to the anticorruption field. For behavioral insights to trigger a genuine revolution in this area, we need more published data-backed cases of success and guidelines on how to structure effective behavioral interventions. That’s not to say there’s no reason to be optimistic that we’ll get there eventually. More research in this field is ongoing. Last year, for example, the UK Home Office revealed that, as part of its five-year anticorruption strategy, the UK government is working with the governments of Colombia, Mexico, and Argentina to support research on behavioral economics focused on anticorruption. The research is focused on boosting reporting of corruption in the public sector, addressing corruption affecting the quality and quantity of school meals and encouraging disclosure of beneficial-ownership information by contractors. Maybe the results of this work will finally allow the behavioral insights to proudly claim the title of revolution in anticorruption.

11 thoughts on “Where Is the Behavioral Insights Revolution in Anticorruption?

  1. Excellent comment. I felt the same way after reading the report. One additional point you might have made. Perhaps the person to look to for reserch on behavioral economics’ insights on anticorruption is someone trained in both law and social science. Someone perhaps who runs a workshop on corruption, teaches at a well-known American university, and edits a blog on law, social science, and corruption. Any names come to mind?

  2. Very interesting post Ruta. As an corruption researcher and behavioral economics enthusiast myself, I would agree that the academic literature currently has very little to say about how behavioral economics can aid anti-corruption efforts. Though I am but a nascent scholar (4th year PhD student), I have read lots and lots of papers on corruption, and rarely encountered work that approaches corruption from a behavioral perspective in a serious way. I think that this is most likely because first of all, good data on corruption is very hard to get— and then if you want to get that data in a setting where you will also be able to do some behavioral experiments, it gets almost impossible.

    • This is of course not to say that we should throw our hands up and give up on doing good behavioral research on corruption, but rather means that this is an area where a lot of progress can be made by researchers who can figure this out.

      • I agree! I think there are many reasons why the anticorruption community seems reluctant to apply such innovative approaches. First, a lot of NGOs working in the field and implementing all sorts of anticorruption initiatives rely on funding that is tied to concrete measurable results. It is very hard to get funding for experimental initiatives that may not necessarily yield any results on the first run, even though they would provide valuable insights for the future. Second, the state institutions in anticorruption are afraid to be wrong. It is hard for a head of an anticorruption agency to defend a decision to invest in an experimental initiative in the country, allocate resources and budget. Since anticorruption is often a highly political question, such initiatives can easily be attacked by opponents as not doing enough or even wasting public resources (because “what about the systemic legal reforms needed?!” – as if different approaches to fighting corruption cannot co-exist). Finally, there is a fear of making mistakes. Nobody likes being wrong and since there is currently little data on what works, it is hard to start doing something.

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  4. agre eon all counts. we have been trying at IDB to bring this approach into our Ac program and have so far struggled to make any inroads.

  5. I hope you succeed! Is there maybe any a possibility to provide seed funding to small initiatives that want to experiment on this in the region?

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