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

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