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Descriptive Norms of Corruption or “I bribe because everybody else does”

Guest writer Nils Köbis discusses some new research on the impact of corruption as 'normal' behaviour. Nils is a PhD student from the VU University Amsterdam

It is one of the big questions of corruption research: why is it that in the same societal, organizational context some abuse power for their private gain while others don’t; some bend the rules while others adhere to them; some instigate bribe payments while others don’t even think of it. One main insight from the emerging and growing research on the “dark side of human behaviour” like cheating, lying and corruption is that social norms and rationalizations matter a great deal. The logic is compelling and intuitive: if you consider a certain behaviour to be normal you are likely to do it as well. Normal behaviour is easy to justify.

But, what does ‘normal’ actually mean? Social psychologists distinguish between two types of social norms: one type of norms (injunctive norms) indicates the acceptability of a specific behaviour, i.e. whether a behaviour is considered to be moral and/or legal; the second type of norms (descriptive norms) indicates the frequency of this behaviour, i.e. whether a behaviour is common. This can lead to mismatches. For example: people know that employing clandestine workers for their private constructions is illegal, yet due to its high perceived frequency a lot of people do it nonetheless – in a recent Dutch data set with over 13,000 respondents 75.5 per cent of the respondents claim that they would employ clandestine workers despite knowing that it is illegal.

So, does the same logic apply to corrupt behaviour? Is corrupt behaviour driven by its perceived frequency, rather than a perceived moral evaluation of that corrupt practice? A recently published open access article from researchers at the Free University Amsterdam shows that in order for a person to make the decision to engage in bribery, the perceived frequency of the behaviour, and not the moral valence, matters. In an attempt to answer the above questions, researchers used an experimental approach and developed a ‘Corruption Game’. In the game, players get the opportunity to bribe a government minister to obtain advantages in the allocation of a construction project. Although participants perceived bribing the minister as corrupt and unfair, people did it nonetheless if they perceived it to be a common practice. The logic is: “If everybody does it, I might just do it as well”. Perceiving that the majority engages in corruption makes it much easier for someone to justify their own corrupt behaviour. In one of the three studies included in the article, participants received short descriptive norm statements before playing the game. They were either informed that bribing the minister is common (almost everybody does it) or uncommon (almost nobody does it). The norm statements saying that people rarely engage in this type of corruption drastically reduced the level of bribery in the subsequent game. If people believe that corruption is uncommon they are less likely to do it themselves. You can play the game used in the study here.

This study points towards a new direction in anti-corruption efforts. Besides only focusing on increasing the likelihood and severity of punishment, a complementary focus on social norms may be a promising tool to reduce corruption. One example would be to target the perception of what everybody else does, e.g. through small nudges like short statements or reminders. Social media is another pathway through which the perceptions about what everybody else does can be influenced. The same corruption scandal can be covered in entirely different ways, which might shape the readers’ view of social norms in different ways. For example, media coverage about the recent FIFA corruption scandal that conveys the message that the majority of FIFA officials are corrupt might actually alleviate the justification and rationalizations of the reader to act likewise. However, media coverage that focuses on the ‘heroic’ acts of those detecting and persecuting the corrupt activities might lead to the opposite effect. A focus on the efforts of those fighting against corruption might shape the readers’ perceptions about corruption in a more favourable way. 

Author : Nils Köbis

17 Jul 2015

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