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Hot States and Empathy Gaps: How Anti-Corruption Programs Can Target our Irrational Sides

By Claudia Baez-Camargo, Head of Public Governance, Basel Institute


We know that even our strongest, most rational determinations can go awry when we’re under stress or the influence of strong emotions. Despite this common sense knowledge, most anti-corruption approaches are anchored solely in normative assumptions. Thus, they ignore the complex web of social relationships, and the “hot states” they often give rise to, in which many acts of corruption occur.


The mismatch between how we rationally think we will behave when confronted with a particular situation (or challenge) and how we actually behave when that situation (or challenge) actually comes about is what behavioral scientists refer to as the empathy gap.



Photo: Unsplash

In essence, when strong emotions come into play, our ability to make decisions in a rational manner is challenged and sometimes even overpowered. These powerful emotions might be related to basic physiological functions such as being hungry (consider, for example, the famous study on hungry judges dispensing particularly harsh judgements) but also to peer pressure and social influences (the effect of peer pressure on risk-taking behaviors of teenagers is well documented). When in a “hot state,” individuals as different as judges and teenagers might act contrary to what they know to be the right behaviors.


We must take seriously the mismatch between observed social realities and the assumptions underpinning many anti-corruption programs. This is especially true considering the significant resources routinely invested in public education, awareness-raising campaigns and capacity building on compliance tools such as codes of ethics and risk management methodologies. When we fail to consider that in real-life situations people engage in corruption despite being well informed, we risk squandering crucial resources invested in formal awareness and capacity-building approaches.


Combatting a faulty assumption


As readers of this blog will know, much recent literature has vividly illustrated how many types of corruption are incentivized, even fueled, by social elements that create strong ties and expectations about obligations, duties and entitlements among regular citizens and public officials alike. In our work at the Basel Institute on behavioral drivers of petty corruption in East Africa, we observed how social norms of reciprocity and solidarity can underpin acts of bribery, favoritism and embezzlement in the context of the delivery of essential public services. These norms are enforced through shaming or, conversely, praising; abiding by these norms (or not) is closely associated to one’s social status. Other contributions to this growing field include the work led by Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Diana Chigas of CJL, David Jackson at U4, and Leena Koni Hoffman and Raj Navanit Patel of Chatham House.

"The social acceptability of corrupt actions may not be as widespread as people might think. The expectations about the frequency to which people actually give in to bribery might also be based on inaccurate preconceptions. Revealing the true preferences of others can be a powerful tool to help those experiencing 'hot states' more easily adhere to their institutional and professional codes of ethics."

An important step in continuing to develop this research agenda is to translate our research findings into effective anti-corruption intervention modalities that consider the social and behavioral dimensions (such as the empathy gap) that account for, and even incentivize, acts of corruption. Most anti-corruption and integrity initiatives, however, often fail to take into account these “hot state” conditions.


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A common assumption is that people simply need to be made aware of their rights, of the nature and costs of corruption, or to be trained in codes of conduct. Instead, evidence from around the world tells us that most people can not only clearly identify what constitutes an act of corruption, but also generally reject and scorn corruption. This is supported by recent research, which suggests that simply informing people about what corruption is (or is not) and what the correct behaviors should be is not just ineffective but also potentially counterproductive. By understanding the role played by the empathy gap, it becomes clear why such information is of limited utility when individuals are under intense pressure or stress.


Thus, fascinating as the research on social norms and behavioral drivers of corruption may be, it is critical, as Mark Pyman argues, to stop “admiring the problem.” Instead, we need to accelerate design and test interventions that account for the fact that anti-corruption actions must be led and owned by real people who often must operate in “hot states” rather than cool, rational choice-consistent algorithms.



Lessons from a Tanzanian hospital

Tanzanian hospital by Claudia Baez-Camargo

In a recent project funded by the GI-ACE programme, I joined forces with colleagues from the University of Dar es Salaam, the Behavioural Insights Team, and Utrecht University to design and pilot an anti-bribery intervention in a Tanzanian public hospital that acknowledged and targeted the role of social norms. In this pilot, we tested several ideas on how to change people’s perceptions and expectations surrounding bribery practices. The piloting experience generated a rich wealth of insights on how attitudinal and behavioral change can come about by targeting social norms. (We have discussed broader implications for practitioners in a Working Paper.)

"A common assumption is that people simply need to be made aware of their rights, of the nature and costs of corruption, or to be trained in codes of conduct. Instead, evidence from around the world tells us that most people can not only clearly identify what constitutes an act of corruption, but also generally reject and scorn corruption."

Among other things, we tested the idea of intervening in the choice architecture precisely where “hot states” happen (e.g., the doctor’s office where a bribe would be offered, the hallway where a nurse might escort a patient to the consultation room). This accounts for the anticipated effect of the empathy gap by purposefully introducing “tools” or resources to help individuals bring the visceral state under control and redirect them towards making the right decision.


Therefore, in the intervention, we placed posters showcasing anti-bribery messages in visible locations throughout the hospital. We also set up signs on every single desk in the hospital departments receiving the intervention, reinforcing the anti-bribery message to users. In addition, these desk signs had a provider-facing side that gave health workers a four-step practical guide to tactfully, but decidedly, reject gifts offered by users.



The messages on the posters and desk signs were designed to address concrete social pressures related to practices of bribery in the hospital, which we had found in previous research. These posters and desk signs were intended as environmental cues, visibly disrupting the perceived descriptive (everyone is doing it) and injunctive (bribery is accepted and expected) social norms associated with bribery.


During interviews, several providers recounted that when patients offered a gift, having the materials at hand helped to justify their refusal. Some users pointed out that the posters and signs made them scared to give gifts, others thought it good for the hospital’s reputation, and yet others said the intervention relieved them from concerns about having to give gifts because they are poor and cannot afford to pay for them.


The intervention results showed substantial reductions (14–44%) in survey-based measures of gift-giving intentions, attitudes and positive beliefs among hospital users eight weeks after the intervention started, as compared to the baseline measurement obtained four weeks before the intervention.


Overcoming the empathy gap

Our experience demonstrates the potential of intervening in the physical spaces where corruption risks happen in order to support people in making the right decision and overcome the dilemmas that arise out of the empathy gap. The key is to understand how people involved in acts of corruption are affected by their social environment and, on the basis of that, develop effective approaches to communicate and engage with them.


For practitioners, here are three takeaways for future work.

1. Create cognitive dissonance.

Placing environmental cues that contradict or dissuade from the negative behavior in those places where it presumably takes place can boost the success of mainstream approaches such as integrity building and codes of ethics trainings. This can address evidence that the positive impact of educating individuals on professional norms can be weakened when they are exposed to pressures and dysfunctional practices prevailing in the workplace. It can also help address dilemmas raised by other research pointing to a short-term positive effect of compliance trainings.


2. Build adequate and sustainable social support mechanisms.

In contexts where corruption is normalized, behavior change interventions ask individuals to become positive deviants and, as such, susceptible to backlash. Nurturing networks of anti-corruption champions, based on giving salience to positive roles and emphasizing shared identities, can help. Visibility in local media and extending rewards, such as public recognition by authorities or professional associations, can also be considered.


3. Reveal the “true preferences.”

More and more evidence (for example, from Mexico and South Africa) confirms that perceived social norms linked to corruption might be based on wrong assumptions. The social acceptability of corrupt actions may not be as widespread as people might think. The expectations about the frequency to which people actually give in to bribery might also be based on inaccurate preconceptions. Revealing the true preferences of others can be a powerful tool to help those experiencing “hot states” make the right decisions and more easily adhere to their institutional and professional codes of ethics.


What will work, where and how is an empirical question. We need to empirically test approaches tailored to address concrete problems of corruption. These should incorporate a people-centered perspective that recognizes the pressures and costs that individuals must confront to overcome entrenched bribery, favoritism and other forms of corruption.


The way ahead is still a long one. It’s no simple thing to elicit durable behavior change in those areas where corruption has proven resilient. However, building on rigorously collected evidence from real-world settings is the way forward. The path to success will still require significant investment—but we can be confident that, in doing so, we will be building on solid foundations.


 

Dr. Claudia Baez-Camargo is an anti-corruption expert leading academic research and technical assistance programs that seek to prevent and combat corruption in various countries around the globe. Claudia’s work brings together academic research and technical assistance with the goal of promoting anti-corruption approaches that are context-sensitive and address relevant drivers of corruption. Among other areas, she has conducted extensive research on how behavioural factors, such as those associated with social norms and mental models, can impact anti-corruption outcomes. Claudia holds a PhD in political science from the University of Notre Dame, USA and a graduate degree in economics from the University of Cambridge, England.

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