A nudge in the right direction: applying behavioural insights to public integrity

In the lead-up to the 2018 Global Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum, to be held on 27-28 March at the OECD, Levke Jessen-Thiessen and Laura McDonald of the Directorate for Public Governance explore how behavioural insights (BI) aims to make the good choice the easy choice when it comes to public integrity.

Make the good choice the easy choice; this simple idea has revolutionised public policy while one of its main advocates, Richard Thaler, was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics late last year, hurling behavioural economics into the limelight. Psychology, economics and other sciences identify patterns in the social, cognitive and emotional behaviour of individuals and institutions. Behavioural insights sums up the many valuable lessons and new perspectives on policy making entailed in behavioural research. Around the world, BI has inspired the design of policies to improve citizen well-being in everything from public health and wealth management to how we raise our children. But can they also help to improve integrity?

The application of behavioural insights to public integrity is not so straightforward; corruption is not an unhealthy snack that we can ban to the darkest corner of the cafeteria nudging people to choose integrity instead. Nonetheless, integrity policies can learn a lot from behavioural insights.

Policy makers struggle to combat corruption and raise standards of integrity in societies. Although rules, regulations, controls and sanctions surely make it harder to be corrupt, they do not make it easier to act with integrity. And therein lies the secret – If you want people to do something, you have to make it easy for them.

Behavioural research has shown us that we don’t give ourselves credit for doing the right thing when we are forced to do so. Strict control can even be poisonous: questions of morality become matters of calculation, reaching a goal becomes about passing the control. But human nature is hardwired for integrity. Many people try to do the right thing every day – and not just to avoid a sanction or pass a control. Yet, too often they feel that they operate in a system that does not support the right choices, that does not make ethical choices easy for them.

A human-centred approach – a culture of integrity

A behavioural perspective on public integrity, on the contrary, is one that encourages personal integrity. The goal is not to change people; it is to make things easier by removing the barriers to ethical choices. Tapping into these existing human motivations provides a “light-touch” approach to channelling existing inclinations to do the right thing.

The devil within

Wrong way
Photo: Neonbrand

Research shows that when it comes down to making ethical choices, it’s a constant mind battle between self-interest and morality, one which is never decided once and for all. Our tricky brains don’t like to feel conflicted about decisions and will go to great lengths to avoid any uncertainty or discomfort in its choice making; You know you shouldn’t eat the fifth cookie, but your brain says “hey, you have had a hard day and you are working late to meet that deadline. You did also walk to work instead of taking the bus this morning” and you’re like “thanks brain, you’re right” as you scoff your way through a multi-pack of chocolate chip cookies. Likewise, over-claiming travel expenses is just fair compensation for the inconvenience of that business trip, right?

 ‘You do not wake up one morning a bad person. It happens by a thousand tiny surrenders of self-respect to self-interest’
Robert Brault

What can policy makers do? Integrity is a matter of self-respect. Public sector staff should be reminded regularly of the trust placed in them and the integrity expected of them. Let them know! Keeping commitments top of mind may help them to refuse a temptation to cut a corner, enrich a friend or cheat the system.

Photo: Austin Chan

Likewise, in their daily work, small moral reminders can tip the scales in favour of integrity, making it easier to win that brain battle. An inconspicuous message, such as “thank you for your honesty”, communicated at the right moment can effectively trigger a more ethical choice.

Unethical behaviour is often a slippery slope. It expands gradually and spreads within groups. What you get away with once, you have a tendency to try again, and before you know it, it’s a habit. What everybody else appears to go along with, can’t be so wrong, right?

What can policy makers do? They can put a stop to this slide ride into corruption by introducing moments of ethical reflection. People who are gradually drifting deeper and deeper into misconduct need a wake-up call now and again. “What am I doing, and is this in accordance with ethical standards?”

By building moments of ethical reflection into policies and procedures ranging from recruitment and performance assessment, to workshops, campaigns and even screensavers, policy makers can provide a wakeup call to those in danger of slipping into unethical behaviour.

The more, the merrier?

Creating a new policy? Invite another set of eyes to read it, require a second opinion, seek another evaluator, and create an oversight committee; many integrity policies tend to focus on preventing one single person from making a decision alone. The four-eyes principle is designed to disseminate responsibility and therefore prevent corruption.

The problem is, simply put – guilt is reduced dramatically when shared. Implicating others in a corrupt scheme can even be a good tactic to buy their silence; it spreads the responsibility thin across the shoulders of many and reduces individual responsibility.

Therefore, involving more people doesn’t mean ethical decisions and integrity prevails, many immoral acts even require the support of several people to come into existence.

Diffusion of responsibility occurs when people who need to make a decision wait for someone else to act instead

The truth is, when we don’t feel personally responsible for something we tend not to do anything about it, ignoring our conscience entirely. People often struggle to think and act independently in groups which can prevent them from seeing corrupt acts and preventing them. We seldom question a behaviour that is common amongst our peers. And even if we notice unethical behaviour in our direct environment – will we speak up? It can be next to impossible to stand up to that respected colleague or say no to an established practice.

What can policy makers do? Is team work doomed to breed immoral behaviour? No, not at all – but we must ensure that policies evoke individual responsibility. Cut out the four-eyes-principle when is doesn’t serve a clear purpose and reward those who speak up. Policies need to provide opportunities to report misconduct without harming personal relationships, and lastly, do not expect peers to monitor each other.

Photo: Kalle Kortelainen

Mind the blind

We are all susceptible to more than 200 cognitive biases which affect our ethical judgment[1]. These biases can cause the ethical aspects of a decision to disappear from both sight and mind. Put simply -unconsciously, we only see what we expect to see.

Many people, experts in particular, tend to believe they are smarter than their biases. This trust in their own objectivity can leave them vulnerable to mental tricks that overthrow their own moral rules and better judgement. That is one of the reasons why “good accountants do bad audits”. Yet, objective judgement is important for an integrity system. Accountants, auditors and anyone else who regularly makes ethical judgments can reduce their errors through a better understanding of systematic debiasing.

What can policy makers do? There are essentially three strategies to debiasing: Incentives, training and nudges. All three should be included in an integrity system: decision makers need to be clearly incentivised to be objective and shielded from subtle conflicts of interests. They should be trained to know and identify biased behaviour. And the way in which they are presented with choices should be designed to favour objectivity, for example through smart default settings or reframing questions.

What do you think?

Find this interesting? Join us and continue the discussion at the session “Ethical Superhumans? Behavioural Insights for Integrity” at the 2018 OECD Global Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum on 27-28 March, where integrity experts from government, business and academia will exchange perspectives and experiences on the use of behavioural insights for integrity policies.

[1] (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011); see for example fundamental attribution error: http://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/fundamental-attribution-error or ethical fading: http://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/ethical-fading

The OECD report Behavioural Insights for Public Integrity – Harnessing the Human Factor to Counter Corruption will also be launched on 27 March 2018.

Register now

You can also join the conversation online using the hashtag #OECDintegrity


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