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The subtle science of nudging anti-corruption

Can small changes in the decision-making context help reduce corruption? For International Anti-Corruption Day, Agata Slota discusses the potential of using insights from psychology, alongside more traditional anti-corruption policies, to promote integrity.

Photo Credit: United Nations

Anti-corruption approaches range widely - from improving the functioning of institutions and strengthening oversight mechanisms to tightening legal frameworks and building coalitions of supporters for change. A newer approach to addressing corruption and building integrity by 'nudging' behaviour change. Nudging entails changing the context within which a decision is made in a way that influences how people act, without constraining their choices.

We see nudges all around us. Changing where items in a shop are displayed, for example, is a nudge because it influences purchasing decisions. Making a specific choice the default option is a nudge because default options tend to be more frequently selected. Because of this the UK government has instituted a policy where employers automatically enrol staff in pension schemes, making enrolment the default option – while people can opt out of the schemes, they often don't, leading pension scheme enrolment rates to go up. Even very small changes, or nudges, such as the rewording of tax collection letters, can have a big impact on behaviour.

Why nudge integrity?
Nudges have a number of benefits for policy, including for anti-corruption work. They are often cheaper than other policy tools, and they can be easier to implement because they rarely require major legislative change. Additionally, nudges are designed with an understanding of human psychology, so they may be more effective than behaviour change approaches that do not take psychology into account. Finally, nudging can work even where additional regulation doesn't; higher levels of control over people’s behaviour can actually be counterproductive because more control may signal to people that they are thought to be untrustworthy, leading them to be resentful and reducing their intrinsic motivation to act ethically.

There are many types of corrupt behaviour, of course, and nudges will only be applicable in certain contexts. While they can be used alone, they are more likely to be used in combination with other anti-corruption approaches.
So what are possible nudges to reduce corruption and promote integrity?

The power of commitments
Some nudges revolve around the power of commitments. When people commit to an action publicly - in front of others - they are much more likely to carry out the action. People want to be consistent in what they say and how they act for their own sake and because they want to look like they stick to their word in front of others. An organisation may, therefore, get its staff to publicly commit to acting honestly. For example, new staff may be asked to make a verbal commitment to integrity at a meeting when they first introduce themselves to their colleagues.

Even committing to acting ethically in private, before carryout out an activity, has been shown to increase the chance of ethical behaviour. A well-known example is of the impact of signing ethics statements at the beginning of forms such as tax returns or expense reimbursement forms. Documents that ask individuals to sign an ethical statement committing themselves to truthfulness usually have that statement at their end – the individual only signs the statement after having filled out the rest of the document. However, research has shown that people are more likely to be honest in filling out forms if they sign such statements at the beginning of the forms, before filling in the rest. Therefore, to reduce fraud in filling out expense forms, for example, individuals can be asked to sign their name next to an ethical statement at the top of the forms, or better yet, to write out the statement themselves at the top of the form and sign it.

The limits of willpower
Other nudges are based on the fact that everyone has limited willpower. In highly stressful moments or when resources are scare, willpower is even more strained and people are more likely to succumb to temptation, and potentially commit fraud. At times like this, people may need to be reminded to act honestly. Sending simple text messages to staff saying "Thank you for acting with integrity," to nudge them in the right direction may be an effective, simple intervention.

Decisions that are at a high risk of unethical behaviour could also be scheduled for times when people are less stressed or less resource-poor. In countries where civil servants make little money, it may be best not to schedule major decisions for the days leading up to pay day. Major procurement decisions, for example, could be scheduled for right after pay day when the civil servants are less worried about money and have more willpower to turn down potential offers of bribes to sway the decisions.

Lying by omission and commission
Still other nudges respond to the fact that people are more likely to be dishonest by omitting information than by providing false information. It's easier for me to not say anything to my mom about taking the last cookie out of the cookie jar than for me to tell lie about taking it when she asks me about it. This insight can be used in situations where people may omit information in order to gain personally, for example on income declarations that are used to determine public benefits. Individuals who receive benefits could be required to provide an update on their circumstances annually instead of being expected to proactively declare if their circumstances change.

The influence of those around us
Social norms also play a significant role in whether people act ethically or not. We are impacted by how others behave and by how we think others think we should behave. Letting people know that ethical behaviour is common, or the 'norm', can therefore influence them to behave in the same manner. On the contrary, if people think unethical behaviour, such as bribery, is normal, they may be more likely to engage in it. Therefore, when there is a high level of adherence to a behaviour, organisations may want to let their people know.

The tricky thing is that there is no magic threshold level at which an action is seen as a norm. Do 60% of people have to be adhering to an activity to make it a norm? 75%? 90%? This depends on the situation. Therefore, messages based on social norms should be tested to make sure that publicising anything but perfect adherence isn’t actually counterproductive ("10% of my colleagues take bribes? That’s not so bad, maybe I should too.")

A second nudge informed by social norms research has to do with our perception of whether our peers expect us to follow organisational or societal rules. One of the difficulties for those working to reduce dishonest behaviour is that effectively enforcing certain rules can be highly impractical or prohibitively expensive because of the hidden nature of the banned activity. Instead, it may be helpful to enforce other rules which are easier to observe and enforce. This is because when people see their peers getting away with violating one rule, they are more likely to violate another rule. On the other hand, showing that one rule is being followed will impact on whether other, potentially harder-to-enforce rules are followed as well. Therefore, to reduce petty bribes in an office, for example, it may be wise to ensure that rules about keeping the office clean or about following a specific procedure for printing are enforced and followed.

Where to now?
There are many more examples of how nudges can be used to promote integrity, from Curbing Corruption to the Organisation for Economic Coopration and Development (OECD) and, of course, the Behavioural Insights Team. Research into the psychology of ethics has a long history, and many forms of nudges have been tested to see if they increase honesty. And behavioural science is a growing field, influencing more and more policy areas. However, the impact of nudges specifically to reduce corruption needs to be explored much more and tested within defined contexts. There are also many questions that need to be answered, such as the one on social norms noted above.

Despite this, the nudging approach is promising, not least because the roots of corrupt or unethical behaviour are many and complex, and people's decision-making context plays a huge role in what they'll do. In the end, it'd be crazy to not use evidence on how people behave to change behaviours.