The unintended consequences of anti‐corruption messaging in Nigeria: Why pessimists are always disappointed

Publication Type: Working Paper

Country: Nigeria

Authors: Nic Cheeseman Caryn Peiffer

The unintended consequences of anti‐corruption messaging in Nigeria: Why pessimists are always disappointed

A recent strand of quantitative research has suggested a deeply concerning finding: by making individuals aware about the pervasiveness of corruption, anti-corruption messages may make citizens more despondent and undermine their willingness to fight back (Peiffer, 2017; 2018). In other words, telling people about corruption may make the fight for a ‘clean’ government seem helpless. It may exacerbate the notorious collective-action problem in this area and encourage individuals to ‘go with the flow’ rather than to ‘stand against the tide’. More worrying still, some studies have suggested that this is not only the case for messages that explicitly stress how pervasive corruption is: even much more careful, targeted and up-beat statements that emphasise anti-corruption efforts may have this effect (Peiffer, 2018). This is of profound importance for policy-makers, because it suggests that any campaign that primes the public to think about corruption may do more harm than good.

In this paper, we report the findings of new research conducted in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2019. We administered a survey to 2,400 participants and played a ‘bribery game’ with 1,200 participants in order to better understand how individuals respond to different kinds of anti-corruption messages. More specifically, this paper pushes the debate forwards in four ways:

  1. We focus on the influence of messaging on corrupt behaviour, as opposed to public attitudes towards corruption or self-reported willingness to pay a bribe. Significantly, this is the first paper that tests the impact of anti-corruption campaigning on behaviour by showing messages to individuals in their own homes, and then asks them to play a ‘bribery game’ in which they stand to win real money depending on whether or not they are willing to pay a bribe. As a result, it offers a more realistic test of the impact of anti-corruption messages on corrupt behaviour than previous studies, which have been conducted in an artificial laboratory setting or have assessed attitudes through survey questions with individuals not having to forego any real-world benefits when disavowing corrupt practices. 
  2. We test the impact of five different messages – more than any previous study has tested – which represent a broader range of framings, tones and themes, including those that stress the direct connection between corruption and an individual, for example through the misappropriation of citizens’ tax payments. 
  3. We go beyond the focus of the extant literature by looking at the varying effects that anti-corruption messages have on different types of individuals. This, we found, is of crucial importance to ascertain why anti-corruption messages have unintended consequences, and under what conditions this effect is most pronounced. 
  4. Finally, our study looks at a new case – Lagos, Nigeria – which enables us to say more about the generalisability of the emerging critique of anti-corruption messaging. More specifically, this paper is the first to examine the influence of anti-corruption messaging in West Africa and only the second in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Read the Working Paper.