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06 December 2021

Behavioral Approaches to International Corruption Fighting

The United Nations are turning behavioral – it clearly states that behavioral sciences should be included in its work in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including corruption fighting, as stated in SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions). In that, the UN follows the World Bank which devoted its World Development Report 2015 to “Mind, Society, and Behavior” and turned its eye to behavioral insights, including for fighting corruption. Yet, this endeavor is clearly in its infancy, and it is not yet connected to (international) law – the legal link is missing. The Special Issue of World Comparative Law discusses “what the law does to corruption and vice versa”. Clearly, the law against corruption was based on a rationalist approach – as the law usually is. But humans think automatically, socially, and with mental models. Do behavioral insights, then, have a role to play in corruption fighting? This short blog post submits that a rational choice approach alone has not been very successful, although it remains and should remain important. Whereas recently more (development) economists have written about a behavioral angle to corruption fighting, (international) lawyers have not yet followed suit.

International Instruments and Behavioral Interventions

Corruption fighting is a multi-level endeavor. It is nowadays well entrenched in international law on the global level with the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and the OECD Convention against Corruption, regional treaties in the Council of Europe States, in America as well as Africa. I take UNCAC as an example in the following since it is the most encompassing and a global instrument. It remains focused on the rational choice approach using repressive instruments but contains the – hitherto unused – possibility of using behavioral insights. The respective technical guidelines of UNCAC does not yet use behavioral insights, nor do they refer to the World Bank Report published earlier. Surely, the fight against corruption needs to take place on all levels of regulation: international, national, and local. The insights submitted in this post can be transformed into guidelines by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on the international level and applied on the national and local level. Furthermore, UNODC could share good practices from countries where behavioral insights may already be used. In the following, I propose some behavioral interventions; they are meant to serve as examples only. Although the fight against corruption was and is driven by values and interests, the international instruments used for corruption predominantly rely on purely extrinsic motivations to comply (or not) with the law against corruption. They rely overwhelmingly on repressive methods based on the substantial risk of detection and punishment. And this is a correct and necessary starting point – rationalist approaches on crime fighting surely have their justification, especially in white collar crime such as corruption. But they may paint an incomplete picture on the motivations of people to comply or not with the respective legal norms. They may see the iceberg towering above the water, but not the ice below the water. Social and cultural factors, including social norms and, last but not least psychological factors also play an important role. The scope of inquiry will be limited to behavioral insights using cognitive psychology, it will not treat personality traits of individuals, nor will it delve deeply into the question of “culture of corruption”. Yet, it acknowledges that corruption is relational.

Law’s Expressive Function

Let us turn first to the law and its expressive function, that is, the way of law in shaping individual behavior by its mere statements and not by its sanctions. This function of law is particularly appealing in the corruption setting where enforcement is difficult, since it promises to achieve socially desirable outcomes with a minimal degree of law enforcement. It is defined as the way law affects individual legal behavior other than through sanctions, that is, not by changing external constraints or opportunities but by shaping individual beliefs and preferences. It is then the mere statement of the law and not the attached sanction that is studied as the cause of the behavioral effect. But sanctions themselves can have an expressive function as well, probably important in corruption law and the international instruments. Although it is debated via which channels the law has this expressive function, most probably it works via the creation of a focal point. A focal point aligns people’s expectations about others’ actions and, thus, their own behavior towards the socially optimal outcome in coordination problems, and, as experimentally shown, also cooperation problems. Thus, the criminalization of the different forms of corruption as precisely as possible is a desideratum in order to create a clear focal point. Yet, there are many ways how this focal point can be strengthened and made more visible, especially since it is a first step in changing a prevalent social norm of corruption by which certain forms of corruption, e.g., influence peddling, is the social norm. Clearly, the “tone from the top” – and a credible tone – is important to strengthen the focal point. But it can also be enhanced, e.g., by social marketing in (social) media campaigns.

Beyond Deterrence

General deterrence theory relies often on the expected sanctions, that is, the probability to be caught and punished. From a rational choice perspective, the cost benefit analysis is influenced by the expected penalty, a function of the severity of penalties and the probability of being sanctioned. This probability is especially small in the hidden crime of corruption. People are not very good a calculating risk and uncertainty, including estimating probabilities. The availability heuristic is a behavioral bias where people tend to think that events are more likely if an example is readily called to mind or available. Relevant events for corruption fighting are not only the publication of the respective law but the wide publication of cases and convictions of corruption. This would also influence the perception of risk. The bias of excess optimism (in conjunction with overconfidence) makes actors underestimate the probability of negative events and overestimate the probability of positive events, possibly leading to an underestimation of the anyhow small probability to be caught. This estimated probability can be influenced by making corruption fighting more salient. Slow speed construction sites on Swiss highways have signs saying how many driving licenses have been withdrawn in the last month. Similarly, it is imaginable to give information on convictions in especially corruption prone sectors, such as construction or public procurement or at the border.

Whistleblowers are an important factor in changing the detection probability. Their perceived presence also destabilizes the reciprocity between the corrupt actors involved. But although their protection is a soft requirement in article 33 UNCAC and it is enshrined in ever more national legislation and EU legislation, more than just shielding them from harassment and worse could be done. If they want to go public (which may be possible in some countries but too dangerous in others), one could, e.g., reward them by naming and praising and making the benefits to society more visible. Immaterial rewards would foster whistleblowing without generating incentives to report false accusations (which material rewards may); although empirically false whistleblowing seems not to be a huge problem.

Rewards may also work alongside sanctions in a society where corruption is prevalent. Immaterial rewards can be powerful to motivate people to abstain from corruption. This applies also to organizations, e.g., one could imagine certificates or labels for “corruption clean” hospitals and schools but also business. Also communities can try to become “corruption free” as is, e.g., the case in Germany where local communities can become members of Transparency International (TI) but have to fulfil certain requirements. TI could also reward the best practices via praising.

Not a Victimless Crime

Corruption was long seen as a victimless crime. This has changed. UNCAC also makes clear that corruption is not a victimless crime; it does so in several articles, in the preamble and it is forcefully underscored in the introduction by the then Secretary General Kofi Annan. Yet, the victims are not visible. Abstract ideas such as the consequences of corruption on democracy, abstract numbers, like less expenditure on public services or a lower GDP is just that – too abstract to change behavior. The disastrous consequences of corruption for societies and individuals are diffuse and the causalities often very complex and not immediate. The human brain is not well adapted to tackle complex and diffuse future phenomena. People neglect in their decisions diffuse consequences harming others. They also tend to neglect long term consequences, e.g., the danger of corruption on democratic societies which is a long term effect (present bias). It is well known that the bigger the number of victims is, the less people will be affected by it – the phenomenon of psychic numbing on victims and costs. Thus, stating abstractly via numbers how many people get hurt without, e.g., proper public services, or that corruption in construction augment the likelihood of death, is insufficient. People tend to think in stories, pure abstract information on the consequences of corruption are insufficient. Thus, stories can be created around the victims of corruption, creating the identifiable victim effect, for example in the arts. Furthermore, emotions need to be taken into account as they are powerful determinants of behavior. Thus, events are not perceived only cognitively but also emotionally. Tackling corruption needs both, feeling and thinking.

Connected and even more important in social change is the narrative prevalent in a society. We are already on a good way to change the master narrative on corruption which went from not being so bad to being a “cancer”. But it may indeed be a still prevailing narrative on the prevalence of corruption in many countries which resists even the legalization of corruption fighting. This narrative can influence the expected threat of public shaming or ostracizing (as a sanction) and it can influence reciprocity. Here, careful attention needs to be drawn to, as mentioned before, the salience of the issue, the multiplication of the anti-corruption drive in the media, mentioning also positive examples, looking carefully at target groups and influencers.

Although the prominent part III of UNCAC is the one on the criminalization of different forms of corruption, in part II of UNCAC, some institutional measures concerning prevention are flashed out: develop and implement effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society (article 5); establish an independent anti-corruption body (article 6). It also asks states to endeavor to have codes of conducts for their public officials (article 8) and demands anti-corruption education, including in universities (article 13 (1) c). These preventive measures should benefit from behavioral insights as well. Many of the proposals of this blog post could be incorporated into the technical guidelines of UNODC which could also help to gather good practices around the world. Corruption is a huge challenge and needs all available means to fight it – the call of the United Nations for using behavioral sciences to understand and fight corruption needs to be heeded urgently.

SUGGESTED CITATION  van Aaken, Anne: Behavioral Approaches to International Corruption Fighting, VerfBlog, 2021/12/06,, DOI: 10.17176/20211207-022548-0.

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