Wednesday, April 7, 2010

changing social norms

I find this very baffling but very cool.

Basically, people in India use zero rupee notes to hand to officials when they ask for a bribe, which mysteriously freaks them out and gets them to do their job without corruption. Anecdotal evidence suggests a very high success rate at avoiding bribes this way. (I am not convinced until I see real unbiased statistics, but for the sake of argument I'll take this claim at face value for now.)

I have no idea why this works better than just saying "I know you're asking for a bribe, and that is corrupt and I will not comply." It seems that "getting caught" by having their bribe requests named with clear, non-euphemistic terms is what freaks them out, and I don't know what is special about fake money at making that happen. I wonder if they were coached to just say it in those terms, rather than using the fake money, it would have a similar effect. And how he came up with this zero rupee note solution in the first place is beyond me. Maybe it's obvious to those who are familiar with Indian culture?

I suspect that over time officials will get used to the notes and return to brazen bribe requests. But I also suspect that this taste of power by the helpless poor masses will make the culture permanently less tolerant of corruption, and if the phenomenon is widespread enough, that will provoke real change.

Changing social norms is one of the most difficult hurdles in development economics, which is why I want to study social norm origins and dynamics, and stuff like this shows that that line of research could go in some very weird places. (And perhaps not be as impossible as it seems.)