Guest Post: The Taxi Driver Paradox–or How Descriptive Social Norms Shape Corrupt Behavior

Nils Köbis, a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Experimental Economics and Political Decision-Making (CREED), University of Amsterdam, contributes today’s guest post:

Whenever I am traveling and take a taxi, I try to strike up a conversation with the driver. The beauty of this situation is that both sides can be really candid. The length is typically short, and chances are you will never meet again. The chat usually kicks off with some small talk about sports, weather, and food. Once warmed up, I have often asked: “What do you think is the biggest problem in your society?” So far, the most common answer has been corruption. And my taxi-driver-based anecdotal evidence is consistent with large  international surveys. Notwithstanding the old canard that people who live in corrupt societies generally tolerate corruption as normal and natural, ample empirical evidence (and my taxi drivers) suggests that this is not true: People widely despise corruption, especially in countries riddled with it. Yet on several occasions the very same taxi driver who has been ranting to me about corruption has stopped by a traffic police officer—and willingly paid a bribe to avoid a ticket.

What explains this apparent paradox? The most frequent explanation for why a person outraged by corruption would nevertheless pay a bribe is that “everybody does it”—as the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie nicely puts it, “If we do something over and over again it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again it becomes normal.” This notion of normality plays an important role in explaining why corruption is sometimes the exception and sometimes the rule. Scholars who research social norms differentiate between injunctive norms, which concern whether a given behavior is acceptable, and descriptive norms, which indicate whether the same behavior is common. This distinction might help to explain the taxi-driver-paradox: People might often bribe because everybody else is doing it, even though they think it’s wrong. Continue reading