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. Continue reading

The Crucial Role of Corporate Boards in Ensuring Corporate Integrity

Volkswagen’s diesel emissions cheat has cost the company dearly. Last October, Volkswagen reached a US$16.5 billion dollar settlement with the US government, and the value of Volkswagen’s stock today is worth about 50% of what it was before the scandal – a US$60 billion drop in the company’s valuation. Criminal charges against several senior managers, including chairman Hans Dieter Poetsch, are still pending. Countless customers are furious, while many employees fear for their jobs as Volkswagen scrambles to cut its costs. (Some background on the scandal, as well as a regularly updated timeline, can be found here.)

What started as a “simple cheat” became a slippery slope for the whole company. Volkswagen failed to create a culture of corporate integrity; the institutional checks and balances that are supposed to prevent something like this from happening were purposefully or ignorantly subverted, and the company created all the wrong incentives. As Alison Taylor has argued on this blog, these are the perfect ingredients for a corrupt corporate culture.

Who to blame for this mess (and, similarly, many other corporate messes)? Just as “a fish rots from the head down,” a company’s board of directors must take responsibility for creating or allowing a toxic corporate culture that permits cheating and other unethical and illegal behavior. Continue reading

Guest Post: Behavioral Economics, Punishment, and Faith in the Fight Against Corruption

The following guest post, by Roberto de Michele, Principal Specialist in the Institutional Capacity of the State Division at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), is a translated and slightly modified version of a post that Mr. de Michele originally published in Spanish on the IDB’s governance blog on August 29, 2016:

Last August, Hugo Alconada Mon, one of Argentina’s most prestigious investigative journalists, published an article (in Spanish) describing how road construction firms in Argentina created a cartel to fix public work contracts. Members of the cartel would meet in the board room of the sector chamber to conduct their business. The room has a statue of Our Lady of Luján, patroness of Argentina. Before commencing negotiations to fix contracts, assign “winners,” and distribute earnings, members of the cartel would turn around the image of Our Lady of Luján to face the wall, with her back to those gathered there. It was, as one of the sources candidly put it, “so that she doesn’t see what we were about to do.” This remark got me thinking about two possible explanations on why we break the law, cheat, and lie both to the government and to others. Continue reading

Guest Post: A Behavioral Science Approach to Preventing Corruption

Johann Graf Lambsdorff, Professor of Economic Theory at Passau University, contributes the following guest post:

Some of our current approaches to corruption prevention perform badly. One reason is that many preventive methods are built on distrust towards officials and employees, who are seen as potentially corrupt actors. Yet research in behavioral science has provided us with impressive evidence that (many) people are (mostly) trustworthy, intrinsically motivated, and responsive to encouragement, praise, expressions of gratitude, and criticism. The problem with assuming that everyone is prone to engage in corruption if not carefully monitored is not only that prevention strategies premised on that assumption are very costly, but also that such approaches can be counterproductive: The atmosphere of distrust that they create can reduce interpersonal trust, intrinsic motivation, and the self-esteem that people get from contributing to public goods and working responsibly.

Economists have labelled these adverse collateral consequences “the hidden costs of control.” In a recent paper entitled “Preventing Corruption by Promoting Trust – Insights from Behavioral Science”, I explain how taking this phenomenon, as well related insights from behavioral sciences about creating positive incentives for good behavior, can help us design more effective policies. The paper illustrates this with the help of six examples: Continue reading