A Social Psychological View on the Social Norms of Corruption
Nils C. Köbis, Daniel Iragorri-Carter and Christopher Starke
It is one of the big questions of corruption research: Why is it that some people abuse
power for their private gain while others do not; some bend the rules while others adhere to
them; some instigate bribe payments while others do not even think of it? A growing body
of literature has studied the social, situational, and individual factors of the “dark side of
human behavior”, like cheating, lying, and corruption. One of the main insights from
behavioral ethics research is that social norms and justifications matter a great deal (Shalvi
et al. 2015). The intuitive logic is both compelling and simple: if you consider a certain
behavior to be normal you are likely to do it as well. When corruption becomes “the
normal thing to do” justifying it is easy - both to oneself and others.
Yet, what does ‘normal’ actually mean? Explaining when and how corrupt behavior is
regarded as normal requires a closer look at the conceptualization of social norms.
According to prominent definitions, social norms are “shared understandings about actions
that are obligatory, permitted, or forbidden within a society” (Ostrom 2000, pp. 143-144);
and, even closer to a specific situation, “the standards of behavior that are based on widely
shared beliefs how individual group members ought to behave in a given situation” (Fehr
and Fischbacher 2004, p. 185). Since humans are equipped with a universal propensity to
learn social norms (Pinker 1994), it is not surprising that social norms have been a popular
subject in social science in general (Darley and Latané 1970; Elster 1989; Fehr and
Fischbacher 2004) and have also been linked to corruption in particular (Bicchieri and
Rovelli 1995; Köbis et al. 2015). Social norms can thus be understood as informal rules
that guide human behavior, including corruption. To zero-in on the link between these
mostly unwritten rules and corrupt behavior from a psychological perspective, we employ
a common distinction between two main types of social norms stemming from sociology
(Goffman 1963) and philosophy (Paprzycka 1999): first, what one ought to do and second,
what one expects others to do.
The first type of social norms refers to the acceptability of a specific behavior and
describes whether a specific course of action is approved by others in a given social
context. In short, they indicate whether a behavior is moral, that is, what one “ought to do”.
While economists typically refer to these mental representations as normative expectations
(Bicchieri 2005), social psychologists call them injunctive norms (Cialdini et. al. 1990).
The second type of social norms deals with the expected frequency and thus indicate how
likely others will follow the specific course of action. One might ask oneself whether or
not a respective behavior is common. How many other people in the same situation would
act in this specific way? These beliefs about the prevalence of a given behavior are labelled
empirical expectations among economists (Bicchieri 2005), and descriptive norms among
social psychologists (Reno et al. 1993). To avoid confusion, we will use labels of
injunctive and descriptive norms put forth in social psychology.
To illustrate the difference between the two types of social norms, we use specific
situations as the basic unit of analysis. Take the following corruption scenario that we will
use as a guiding example throughout this chapter: Imagine you are driving in your car. All
the sudden you are stopped by the police. The police officer asks you to roll down your
window, claims that you crossed a red light which will result in a fine, and asks to see your
driver’s license. You hesitate. What would you do? Would you consider solving this issue
with a bribe - for example by slipping a note in your driver’s license? What are the factors
that would increase the chances that you would do so and consequently might even
consider it to be “normal”?
We seek to answer these questions on multiple levels. The first part focuses on the role of
descriptive norms by introducing a basic macro-level distinction between high corruption
and low corruption contexts. This section illustrates how the frequency of corruption in the
society determines the persisting descriptive norms. Then, we zoom in on the micro level
and show that in a specific situation the perception of descriptive norms plays a crucial
role for people’s (corrupt) behavior. We then turn to injunctive norms and illustrate that the
acceptability of a given corrupt act is shaped by evolutionary psychological mechanisms
such as in-group favoritism and direct reciprocity. Against the backbone of this brief
review on the origins of injunctive norms, we describe the relationship between injunctive
and descriptive norms - why they are at times aligned with one another and at times
opposed. Given that behavioral research analyzing corrupt behavior in a specific situation
can provide answers to these questions, we review the few studies that have done so, as
well as present novel data on the subject. To dig deeper into the understanding of social
norms on the micro-level, we give a brief account of how both forms are acquired over a
lifespan of an individual. Finally, we discuss how social norms of corruption can be
changed – this time, zooming out from individual-based interventions to a broader
approach that seeks to change norms via (mass) media.
2 Societal level of corruption as a determinant of descriptive norms
One of the first things you might ask yourself when hearing the description of the
exemplary situation above is: Which country does this situation occur in? Is it a country in
which such forms of petty corruption are the rule or rather the exception? The country and
the respective level of corruption likely serve as important markers because: a) vast inter-
country differences in the frequency of petty corruption exist; and, b) the decision whether
to offer a bribe, as well as the perception of normality, is largely influenced by the overall
level of corruption in the country. Bribing reflects the “normal” behavior in some
countries, while being considered as deviant in others. The existing level of corruption
therefore reflects the descriptive norms in a country.
Not surprisingly, a rich body of literature addresses the crucial question why some nations
are more corrupt than others (Acemoglu and Robinson 2012; Rothstein 2011; Starke et al.
2016). While it is beyond the scope of this contribution to delve deep into this debate, it is
important to note that one of the main conclusions of corruption research on a global
(macro) level is that stark differences in the level of corruption exist. Several theoretical
contributions reflect this international variation of corruption as frequency dependent
equilibria models (Andvig and Moene 1990; Bardhan 1997; Mishra 2006; Tirole 1996).
According to these models, the prevalence of corruption is self-reinforcing. This means
that societies can fall into a social trap of corruption (Rothstein and Uslaner 2005) once a
critical mass of corruption is reached. Thus, when corruption has become systemic, the
institutions set up to punish corruption themselves fall prey to the high level of corruption
(Persson and Rothstein 2012; Acemoglu and Robinson 2012) and the individual likelihood
to be detected and prosecuted for corruption decreases (Andvig and Moene 1990; Cadot
1987). Hence, in highly corrupt contexts the law alone does not seem to deter individuals
from engaging in corruption (Cadot 1987). Recent behavioral research shows that in
countries with ineffective governing institutions people tend to commit more norm and
rule violations (Gächter and Schulze 2016). Corruption seems to corrupt (Shalvi 2016).
Translated to the example given above: if you find yourself in a traffic control situation, in
a society with effective law enforcement institutions, you better consider that bribing a
police officer is illegal. However, when corruption has become widespread (high
corruption equilibrium), the law does not predict well what will happen. Put differently, in
these contexts, descriptive norms overshadow the codified laws. What that means for the
traffic control scenario is that perceived descriptive norms serves as an immensely
important benchmark. Whether to offer a bribe to the police officer is, in part, shaped by
whether you think it is common to do so. Yet, it is not the only way in which social norms
shape the decision to engage in corruption. The second type, injunctive norms, also affect
your bribery decision because people are equipped with an internal moral compass,
allowing them to take own decisions instead of just mirroring the actions of others.
3 How have injunctive norms of corruption evolved?
In order to understand where the notions of right and wrong about corruption stem from,
and how people typically reach decisions about right and wrong, we take a look back at the
ancestral origins of human behavior. Understanding the evolutionary psychology of
corruption helps to understand why some types of injunctive norms pertaining to
corruption are so stable. Instead of an all-encompassing account on the evolution of social
norms, we provide a summary of two of the most important facets of the evolutionary
psychology of injunctive norms that relate to corruption. Namely, we illuminate how
parochial altruism and direct reciprocity relate to injunctive norms.
Parochial Altruism. Much of evolutionary moral psychology has evolved to enable
cooperation across kinship lines - it is this ability to cooperate on a large scale with
genetically unrelated individuals that separates humans from other animals (Wright 2001)
and has enabled humans to live together in large and complex societies (Haidt 2007).
Although a large proportion of the global population now lives in societies in which
interactions with strangers occurs daily, humans as a species have spent most of the
evolutionary past in small groups and tribes. Throughout evolution favoring those who
belong to one’s in-group, hence people who likely also return favors to oneself, has led to
reproductive benefits (Trivers 1971).
This ‘ancestral past’ has shaped humans’ minds to readily make differences between in-
and out-group members (Sherif 1938) and show an (intuitive) inclination to cooperate with
those belonging to one’s own in-group (Greene 2013). Such norms, also referred to as
parochial altruism (Bernhard et al. 2006), have been adaptive as they have increased the
chances of the survival of cooperative groups (Greene 2013). In fact, members of many (if
not all) cultures endorse the injunctive norm of loyalty towards one’s in-group (Shweder et
Still today, this inclination to cooperate with one’s own in-group helps to understand
injunctive norms of corruption. For example, for many public officials the Weberian ideal
of being an “indifferent bureaucrat”, acting impartial (Rothstein 2011) even towards
friends and family members when exerting public power, violates a moral standard.
Namely, not favoring a member of the ingroup when having the opportunity to do so -
even when it includes an illegitimate use of power - is seen as a loyalty violation (Dungan
et al. 2014). Translated to the traffic control example, if the police officer is your friend,
cousin, or sibling you might expect the alleged violation to magically disappear as soon as
you roll down your window and the officer recognizes you. In fact, you might even
consider making the officer feel guilty about not favoring you based on your acquaintance
or kinship ties.
Direct reciprocity. Besides parochial altruism, direct reciprocity marks another important
psychological dynamic that has propelled cooperation and has shaped people’s notion of
fairness (Haidt 2007). The evolved norms of direct reciprocity, a sort of “tit for tat”
(Axelrod 1984), can ensure cooperation both over longer time-spans but also in one-time
interactions, even with relative strangers (Fehr and Fischbacher 2004). Conversely, not
reciprocating is commonly seen as an injunctive norm violation and can lead to emotional
responses, such as anger and resentment (Haidt 2007). This notion of reciprocity is a moral
concern that is found in societies and cultures around the world (Fiske 1992). Direct
reciprocity provides the moral evolutionary underpinning of many forms of corrupt
behavior, especially interpersonal ones that entail a direct transaction between multiple
corrupt agents (Köbis et al. 2015, 2017; Shalvi et al. 2016). Considering that bribery is a
non-enforceable deal, it is remarkable how many bribery transactions succeed even in one-
shot situations with complete strangers. One of the main drivers lie in the fact that corrupt
reciprocity can particularly flourish in the absence of legal enforcement of anti-corruption
This influence of reciprocity on corrupt transactions has been experimentally tested. Using
a one-shot bribery game, Lambsdorff and Frank (2012) show gender differences in corrupt
reciprocity in that women reciprocated bribes less frequently than men. Going back to our
recurring bribery example: Although paying a bribe does not ensure that you escape legal
prosecution (e.g. paying a fine), if corruption is common, then one can be relatively sure
that the police officer will reciprocate. Again, the evolutionary heritage of reciprocity
norms might increase corruption as not reciprocating might be seen as unacceptable (i.e. as
an injunctive norm violation).
Hence, recognizing the evolutionary heritage of moral psychology helps to understand the
persistence of social norms of corruption. It provides a theoretical framework that shows
why not engaging in corruption can sometimes appear as immoral and could even trigger
moral emotions such as guilt or anger (Köbis et al. 2016). Overall, especially in the context
of weak formal punishment institutions, these injunctive norms might have a strong
influence on corrupt behavior. Yet, does that mean that injunctive norms and descriptive
norms are automatically aligned? Hence, when corruption is widespread, is it also
4 Does frequent also mean acceptable?
Generally speaking, descriptive and injunctive norms are usually aligned (Bicchieri and
Mercier 2014) and some large scale data seems to confirm this notion for corruption too.
For example, Dong et al. (2012) present cross-country data showing that the higher
perceived descriptive norms of corruption are, the more citizens see corruption as justified.
However, other survey data suggest that this is not always the case. For instance, data
stemming from the Afrobarometer shows that people widely condemn corruption, even (or
especially) in countries in which corruption is prevalent (Persson et al. 2012). Corruption is
also perceived to be a major societal problem in many post-soviet countries in which it is
widespread (Krastev 2001). Also, Karklins (2005) show that ordinary people in high
corrupt contexts consider a wide array of corrupt practices as morally illegitimate.
These findings suggest a more complex relationship between descriptive and injunctive
norms. A closer examination of the specific type of corruption in a given situation helps to
identify the respective injunctive and descriptive norms. For instance, even though
corruption is widely condemned on the abstract level, concrete minor cases of everyday
bribery or small time embezzlement might often be viewed as peccadillos by the general
public - even in low corruption contexts. Thus, a more systematic differentiation between
different types of corruption (Köbis and Huss, in press) helps to understand when
injunctive and descriptive norms are indeed aligned and when they are not.
5 Behavioral research on injunctive/descriptive norms and corruption
Behavioral research provides one remedy that allows an investigation of specific types of
corruption and how they relate to the different types of social norms. Little research with
this specific focus exists. One of the few studies conducted by Köbis and colleagues (2015)
shows that people indeed frequently engage in behavior they consider unethical and
corrupt because others are doing it as well. Similar results have also been obtained in other
studies (Bicchieri and Xiao 2009; Mann et al. 2014). What Köbis and colleagues (2015)
additionally show, is that when descriptive norms were experimentally manipulated to be
low, the level of corrupt behavior dropped significantly, providing first insights into the
causal link between perceived descriptive norms and corrupt behavior.
Novel data. Adding to this sparse literature, we present novel data that compared the
impact of injunctive and descriptive social norms in a low corruption country
(Netherlands) and high corruption country (Kazakhstan). The study employed a vignette
design in which participants from both countries (NL: n = 106; KZ: n = 112) read the same
set of seven vignettes which exemplarily depicted different forms of corruption. They were
then asked to rate their perceived descriptive and injunctive norms of each of the described
Results. Three main results emerge. First, across both countries, a significant positive
correlation between injunctive and descriptive norms exists (r = .66). Hence, across both
countries and across all scenarios, the perceived frequency of corruption is aligned with the
overall notion of acceptability: if corruption is seen as more frequent, it is also seen as
more acceptable. Second, the results indicate that for all scenarios combined, both
perceived descriptive norms (F(1, 216) = 98.87, p <. 001) and perceived injunctive norms
(F(1, 215) = 34.66; p <. 001), were significantly higher in Kazakhstan compared to the
Netherlands. This finding is in line with the overall country level differences on the most
recent Corruption Perception Index (Transparency International, 2016), in which the
Netherlands was placed 9th and Kazakhstan 131st. Third, when taking a closer look at the
different scenarios it becomes apparent that the specific type of corruption does make a
difference for the perception of descriptive and injunctive norms. Comparing the responses
from Kazakhstan and the Netherlands, significant differences in descriptive norms
(F(1,216) = 115.64, p < .001) and injunctive norms (F(1, 216) = 47.04, p < .001) emerge
for market-forms of corruption (forms in which money or material goods are exchanged
for favors): respondents from Kazakhstan perceived market-forms of corruption to be more
common and more acceptable than Dutch respondents. However, no inter-country
differences in descriptive or injunctive norms emerge for parochial forms of corruption
(non-monetary transaction based on relationships, e.g. kinship; all ps > .47). For these
relationship-based forms of corruption the perceptions of frequency and acceptability were
not higher in Kazakhstan than in the Netherlands.
Discussion of the study. In sum, the theoretical literature suggests that the perception of
both types of social norms impact corrupt behavior on the micro-level. The intuitive
argument reads as follows: When injunctive and descriptive norms are aligned, people are
likely to respond in the respective manner. But what happens if both types of norms
contradict each other? Are people rather guided by their moral judgement or their
perception of common behavior? The empirical literature suggests that people engage in
corruption if it is perceived as commonplace, even though they might condemn it from a
moral standpoint. Thus, in specific situations, descriptive norms seem to trump injunctive
norms. However, since extensive behavioral data on the role of injunctive norms is still
lacking, we argue that a complex interplay between both types of norms exists - an
interplay that merits more attention in corruption research. It may well be that descriptive
norms are more important in some forms of corruption and injunctive norms are more
important in others. Behavioral research that studies corruption on the situational level
could help to disentangle the relationship between injunctive and descriptive norms
pertaining to different forms of corruption. The vignette study presented here, provides one
exemplary way to do so and shows that dependent on the corruption type at hand the
perceptions of injunctive and descriptive norms might indeed differ substantially. We hope
to inspire more research adopting a similar methodology to uncover the psychological
workings of social norms of corruption on the situational level.
Finally, one question remains to be answered: If social norms are such impactful
guidelines for corrupt behavior, how do people actually arrive at these notions of right and
wrong and common and uncommon? Put differently, how do people acquire social norms?
In an attempt to provide a short rundown of some of the most important psychological
processes that contribute to the perception of social norms, we review how social norms
are shaped in the span of a lifetime.
6 How do people acquire social norms?
There is general consensus, that both injunctive and descriptive social norms are learned
through socialization, or social learning (Haidt, 2003). In comparison to other animals,
humans seem to be especially built for it - with brains designed to socialize thanks to
mirror neurons, facial recognition, and language capacities (Farah et al., 2000; Kohler et
al., 2002; Hauser et al., 2002). In order to show how social norms are “picked up” and
maintained, we draw on social learning theory (Bandura, 1977). This classical theory
explains how most human behavior is learned by observation, or modeling. In order to
understand the main characters in our example, let us take a look at how social norms are
acquired over a lifespan leading up to the specific situation of being faced with a decision
to engage in corruption or not. From birth onwards, humans are subject to social cues that
often serve as reinforcements (smiling) or punishments (frowning) and guide the
acquisition of injunctive and descriptive norms.
In general, infants learn normativity - the “informational summary of how the group
behaves” (McDonald and Crandall 2015, p. 147) - in an environment through observation
and interaction, which we argue are the descriptive norms. For example, research discussed
by Brinck (2015) suggests that infants around 2-4 months of age develop expectations
about other people’s behaviors and carry them forward when meeting others. Moreover,
infants (ca. 18 months) begin to express embarrassment-like feelings; a key moral emotion
associated to the violation of social conventions (Haidt 2003). Expressing moral emotions,
such as guilt and embarrassment, is related to the awareness of normativity and indicates
the development of an ethical stance. By 20-months, Sloane et al. (2012) found that infants
react to violations of fairness norms, suggesting that they have obtained a sense of fairness.
Taken together, the fact that children acquire these notions of social norms at such an early
age again indicates that social norms play a vital role for human behavior in general and
for corruption in particular.
Yet, how come social norms have such a strong impact on human behavior - why do
people usually adhere to these norms? As touched upon above, the roots of many
injunctive norms lie in the evolutionary pressure to ensure cooperation (Haidt 2007).
Several mechanisms to ensure norm adherence have accompanied this evolutionary
process. For example, social punishment systems such as reputation have enforced
cooperative norms and punished free-riding. While breaking social norms resulted in a loss
of social status or exclusion, adherence led to social rewards, such as gaining status.
Over the evolutionary past, this monitoring by others has been increasingly internalized.
That means, it became adaptive to individually monitor and constrain people’s own
behavior through self-conscious emotions: shame, embarrassment, and guilt. As a result of
this internalization process, humans often feel an internal reward (positive emotions such
as pride) when adhering to social and moral norms, even in the absence of direct social
reward. Thus, the motivation to follow and adhere to social norms does not only stem from
the fear of formal punishment such as legal sanctions, but also from the psychological
distress caused by receiving negative appraisals from the respective in-group (i.e. anger)
and from oneself (i.e. guilt). Taken together, adhering to social norms is often rewarding as
people strive to maintain a positive (moral) self-image both towards oneself and others
(Festinger 1954; Mazar et al. 2008). It is however important to re-iterate that this social
psychological norm-adherence mechanism can propel and sustain corruption (consider the
outlined examples of “corrupt” injunctive norms such as loyalty). Changing social norms
therefore requires an understanding of the sources from which the social norms originate.
7 Different sources of information about norms
The literature typically differentiates three environments from which norm-related
information stem, namely: social, physical, and symbolic environment (Mead et al. 2014).
First, the social environment describes influences of other peers. As you might imagine,
the level of proximity of these others shapes the strength of this influence. Like concentric
circles, people in close proximity (e.g. family members and friends), exert a stronger
influence on people’s behavior than those more distant (e.g. neighbors or classmates), who
in turn have a bigger impact than non-members of the social network (McDonald and
Crandall 2015). The social environment shapes descriptive and injunctive norms of
corruption. Seeing how others (successfully) engage in corruption increases the perception
of descriptive norms - not just relating to this specific instance but even spill-over to a
broader level such as the society as a whole (Rothstein and Eek 2009) Similarly with
regards to injunctive norms, if those closely around you approve of corruption, your
injunctive norms on it might change rapidly in their direction as well: a normalization
process sets in (Ashforth and Anand 2003). To demonstrate the influence of the immanent
social environment in our traffic control example: Being pulled over as you are driving on
a road trip with friends who consider bribing acceptable (injunctive norms) to get away
with a transgression might sway your perception of injunctive norms in that direction.
Second, the physical environment refers to physical characteristics that can convey social
norms. Research shows that the immediate environment can shape deviant behavior. For
example, garbage next to a “no littering” sign can induce the perception of high descriptive
norms of littering behavior (Cialdini 1990). Being exposed to such cues of corruption over
a lifespan shapes the perception of descriptive norms in that direction. Going back to our
example, such cues could be a dirty police car or a ragged police uniform. These signs in
turn suggest that the police force is not a proper channel of legal enforcement, which in
turn cues high descriptive norms of corruption.
Third, the symbolic environment includes the news media or marketing sources. People are
constantly exposed to public media that shape both injunctive and descriptive norms in one
way or the other. For example, television content, such as the popular TV series “Narcos”
about the life of Pablo Escobar, might glorify and trivialize a self-centered (and ruthless)
use of power and fame. Watching the news and seeing how illegal behaviors are
commonplace in society can contribute to the creation of social norms that support corrupt
behaviors but they can also be a helpful tool to change them. Consequently, the next
section delves deeper into the various ways in which the media might impact both
injunctive and descriptive norms.
8 How can social norms of corruption be changed?
Given the pervasiveness of systemic corruption and the fact that social norms seem to
cement societies into social traps, a key question is: How can social norms of corruption be
changed? As we have outlined, a first prerequisite for successful attempts is the
specification of the given type of corruption at hand. Combined with the distinction
between injunctive norms (the notion of right and wrong) and descriptive norms (the
perceived frequency of the behavior), we try to paint a more detailed picture of how
corruption can be curbed via changing social norms.
Initial theorizing on how highly-corrupt societies can be changed, draws a grim picture, as
only a ‘big-push’, an exogenous shock on all levels of society might transform high-
corruption countries into low-corruption countries (e.g. Collier, 2000). Through a big push,
so it is argued, societies can escape the corruption trap as the transition of Hong Kong and
Singapore suggests (Tanzi 1998). However, such a multi-scalar effort typically requires a
top-down approach with a determined commitment to the anti-corruption caused by the
political and economic elite who typically benefit from it the most.
9 (Mass) media as a tool to change social norms.
A softer approach to changing social norms lies within the potential of the media. Mass
media can target both the notion of right and wrong (injunctive norms) as well as the
perception of prevalent behavior in a social context (descriptive norms). In order to
understand the impact of media on changing injunctive norms, we need to take a look at
theories on the public sphere. Habermas (2006) and others (e.g. Dahlgren 2002; Ryfe
2005) envisioned a deliberative public sphere based on the three key characteristics:
inclusion, reason-giving and open-mindedness (Evans 2012). Let us illuminate the
influence of each of these three.
First, the media provide a public forum (“marketplace of ideas”) where ideally all kinds of
actors can discuss all kinds of issues and positions. Ideas about corruption are similarly
exchanged. Second, all positions should be justified by arguments and based on reason.
While some might consider corruption unacceptable, others might provide arguments that
stress the permissibility of it. Third, all members participating in a deliberative public
sphere need to remain open-minded for other arguments, reasons, and positions. Even
though such a normative ideal hardly exists anywhere in the world, history has shown that,
over time, injunctive norms can indeed change due to a deliberative process within
societies. Take, for example, an innocent example such as smoking. Today, if someone
starts smoking in a restaurant, the other guests would consider this behavior to be rude and
unacceptable. However, only 30 years ago the same behavior was morally accepted in
almost all public spaces.
Applying this reasoning to corruption, we have outlined above that people often agree on
the abstract notion that corruption is morally wrong. However, when it comes to concrete
forms of corrupt behavior, such as embezzlement or nepotism, moral judgements are not
equally strong; allowing some moral wiggle room, especially if one stands to gain from it
(Dana et al. 2007). Thus, also with regard to potential media effects on injunctive
corruption norms, we pledge for a differentiated use of the term ‘corruption’ (Köbis et al.
2016) in order to better understand the injunctive norm shaping influence of the media.
Even though the empirical literature investigating media effects on injunctive norms is
scarce, several studies shed light on the media’s ability to moralize political issues from
different perspectives. For instance, the literature on value-framing shows “that the ethical
framing of political issues activates considerations about rights and moral in the minds of
some citizens” (Shah et al. 2001, p. 229). Empirical studies show that the media framing of
values can impact issue interpretation, vote choice strategy (Shah et al. 2001) and
candidate choice (Domke et al. 1998). From psychological research we further know that
messages about loss and gain framing can impact people’s moral decision-making (Kern
and Chugh 2009).
Arguably even stronger than the impact on injunctive norms is the media’s effect on the
perception of descriptive norms. The cultivation theory assumes that the information
people receive from the media contribute to shaping their perception of social reality
(Gerbner et al. 1994). Indeed, a meta-analysis conducted by Morgan and Shanahan (1997)
found that the effects are small but stable. However, the effects vary with regard to the
type of genre as well as individual factors. Applied to the phenomenon of corruption, this
means that if the media extensively covers corruption cases, the audience might get an
impression that corruption is a rather common behavior. However, even though we argued
that high descriptive norms can lead to corrupt behavior, it would be a false conclusion to
assume that people become more corrupt if they are exposed to media content about
corruption. Three major reasons are worth mentioning here: First, since media content
exposing incidences of corruption usually deal with the topic critically, it might strengthen
the injunctive norms that corruption is to be condemned. Second, being exposed to media
coverage about corruption also shapes the impression that many corrupt people get caught
deterring others from engaging in corruption in the first place (Becker 1974). Third, and
related to the previous point, the way a news piece on corruption is written likely matters
too. While a description of “yet another corrupt politician might indeed increase the
perceived descriptive norms, focusing on the (heroic) efforts to detect the corruption
scandal by the law enforcement officers or investigative journalists might do the opposite
and strengthen trust in effective monitoring institutions (Köbis et al. 2015). Indeed, most
scholars support the argument that free and hard-hitting media can be an effective tool to
curb corruption (Stapenhurst 2000; Starke et al. 2016).
10 Changing norms through argumentation
Another means of shifting social norms of corruption is tightly connected to the media and
refers to individually encouraging single actors to deviate from the “corrupt” social norm
through argumentation (Bicchieri and Mercier 2014). However, such mechanisms are not
necessarily conveyed via mass media channels and often occur in interpersonal everyday
encounters. Successful arguments typically point out inconsistencies - like disparities
between a person's values (e.g. fairness) and their behavior (e.g. bribery) that creates
unfairness. The human mind typically seeks to reduce this state of cognitive dissonance,
through a number of reduction mechanisms (Festinger and Carlsmith 1959). Changing
social norms of corruption by targeting the individual via argumentation might thus change
his/her opinion about corruption and subsequently convince him/her to stop engaging in it.
In our traffic control example, after realizing the negative impact of bribery, the police
officer’s spouse could try to encourage the police officer not to ask for bribes anymore. Let
us assume that the police officer is indeed persuaded by the spouse’s arguments and
changes his/her attitude: The police officer is determined not to ask for bribes anymore.
Yet, what might happen the next day, when the police officer wants to keep the promise
towards the spouse and stay “corruption-free”? The fellow police officers on patrol might
punish the honest police officer for not asking for a bribe, in part because it represents a
violation of the loyalty norm towards them (Dungan, Waytz, & Young 2014). Another
psychological mechanisms for this enforcement of the corruption norm lies in the ego-
threat that the honest police officer poses to the rest of the team (Jordan & Monin 2008).
One single deviator from the corruption norm makes the others feel more unethical about
their own corrupt behavior and is thus punished by the rest of the crew when trying to
11 Collective approaches to changing social norms
Again, this example shows that corruption is a collective action problem (Persson and
Rothstein 2012) and thus requires the concerted effort of multiple individuals. Given the
interdependent nature of social norms, it requires a collective effort to change them. Even
though most individuals in the community might disapprove of a specific form of
corruption (injunctive norms), corruption will not cease to exist as long as the expectation
that others will act corruptly persists (descriptive norms). So instead of trying to persuade
single individuals, recent approaches suggest that targeting communities as a whole has
more promising prospects (Bicchieri and Mercier 2014). Especially implicit approaches
that avoid outsiders coming to communities and pointing out flaws - have good chances of
Rather than coming with pre-conceived solutions, the respective approaches should engage
in collective deliberation with the members of the community (Bicchieri & Mercier 2014).
Such efforts focusing on empowerment and participation are more likely to be successful
than the ones that explicitly patronize the communities for their practices (Beyerle 2014).
One successful example illustrating that social norms can indeed be changed through the
engagement of those most affected by them comes from Colombia’s capital, Bogotá.
Former mayor, Antanas Mockus employed pantomimes and actors to mock people when
violating traffic rules. Although it might appear as petty, it was effective. The share of
pedestrians obeying traffic signals jumped from 26% to 75% within months (Fisman and
Gatti 2008). He was able to disband 3.200 officers of a corrupt traffic police force and
replaced them with traffic mimes. Employing similar approaches related to corruption is a
fascinating avenue for future anti-corruption efforts targeted at the transformation of social
12 Concluding remarks
We use a distinction between two types of social norms. While descriptive norms describe
the frequency of a corrupt act, the injunctive norms signal its permissibility. Corruption
being “normal” can thus refer to two different things - frequency and acceptability. We
have shown that the general distinction on the macro level between high and low
corruption equilibria in the society reflects the persisting levels of descriptive norms.
However, being widespread does not necessarily mean being acceptable. That is, even
though the two types of social norms are often (intuitively) assumed to be aligned; this is
indeed not always the case. Experimental research can help to uncover when both types of
social norms are in accordance and when discordances exist. In order to do so successfully,
a closer look at the type of corruption at hand is needed. While some forms of corrupt
behavior might be considered as unethical and wrong (injunctive norms) others might in
fact even be considered as moral, as they might rest on evolved moral norms such as
loyalty and direct reciprocity.
We reviewed the existing studies and have presented novel data that supports this assertion
as it shows that country differences in the perceived descriptive and injunctive norms
exists for market-based forms of corruption, yet not for parochial forms of corruption. We
hope that more research will ensue that seeks to uncover the workings of both types of
social norms of corruption on the situational level. The conceptualization of social norms
as consisting of injunctive and descriptive elements provides an operational definition of
‘social norm’ that enables researchers to formulate specific hypotheses on the situational
level and enables empirical research about the links between social norms and corruption.
Efforts targeted at changing social norms of corruption need to recognize the multiple
psychological mechanisms, rooted in evolutionary past of human behavior, and picked up
through the course of a lifetime that shape the perception of the unwritten codes of social
norms. Moreover recognizing the two types of social norms is of paramount importance.
For example, changing “corruption” norms by merely targeting injunctive norms - telling
people that corruption is bad - likely remains unsuccessful. Understanding, analyzing and
experimentally studying both types of social norms helps to advance the understanding
how social norms emerge, are maintained and can eventually be changed.
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