The study of the forces that lead citizens and public officials to tolerate corruption has attracted scholarly attention for decades. We seek to contribute to this literature by arguing that -since corruption is an interpersonal process- public officials’ perceptions of and dispositions toward it are influenced by how it is framed. To test this claim, we conduct an original experiment on a representative sample of civil servants working in a large urban municipal government in Mexico. We find that, even when evaluating clear examples of corruption, public officials are more likely to tolerate the illegal disregard for the bureaucratic procedure when it is framed not as a monetary exchange but as a way in which resources can be redistributed, institutions can be made more flexible, and organizations can be made more efficacious.
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We understand tolerance for corruption as a continuum that goes from accepting, participating in, and promoting corruption to condemning, combating, and denouncing this behavior.
The retrospective use of frames refers to the case when a person chooses and uses a frame to justify or rationalize an act of corruption once it has been committed.
We included one abstract vignette and one concrete vignette per area.
See online Appendix E for an analysis of the effective number of observations.
We only asked respondents about their willingness to misbehave in concrete vignettes. After the study, the researchers aided the transparency unit of the municipality in its efforts to implement anti-corruption measures.
See online appendix A for the precise wording of the exact question wording.
There is no academic consensus on the appropriateness of holding information constant across frames. While some have designed experiments to isolate framing from information (Berinsky & Kinder, 2006; Tversky & Kahneman, 1981), others have taken a less stringent strategy (Chen & Zhang, 2016; Iyengar, 1996) perhaps due to the fact that accounting for informational differences across frames risks blocking an important mechanism by which media and relational frames exert their effect and, ultimately, introducing post treatment bias (Montgomery et al., 2018).
We used randomization without replacement to reduce the treatment repetition (see Online Appendix B).
Replication material for this study can be found at: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/0XM0MU.
The municipal government studied is in one of the five states with the lowest levels of perceived corruption to be the lowest (INEGI, 2020).
We found little difference in the proportion of participants who justify at least one vignette in our sample and the proportion of Mexicans who justify bribes as measured by LAPOP (see Online Appendix D).
While we find little evidence of social desirability unbalances across conditions (Online Appendix F) we do find that social desirability moderates the effect of framing toward the null hypothesis.
Our results are robust to an ordered logistic specification that relaxes some of OLS’ assumptions about the dependent variable (see Online Appendix J).
In these models, individuals who hold their answer constant (strainghtline) do not contribute any information to the estimates. However, we find strainghtlining to be uncorrelated with demographics, and to moderate our effects toward the null hypothesis (Online Appendix H). In addition, we found our results to be robust to clustering the standard errors at the individual level (See Online Appendix I).
As Online Appendix G shows, we have limited statistical power to identify interaction effects, thus, our null findings should be interpreted carefully.
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Authors would like to thank the fieldwork assistance of Ana Rojas, Tania Romero, Eduardo Saucedo, Erika García, Verónica Jaso, Liza Román, Luis Vega, and Prof. María del Pilar Fuerte Celis. They would also like to thank Elizabeth Perez Chiqués and Alfonso Miranda for their substantive and methodological contributions. All remaining errors are, of course, our own.
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Zizumbo Colunga, D., Meza, O. Flying Under the Radar: How Frames Influence Public Officials’ Perceptions of Corruption. Polit Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-021-09745-3