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Integrity based approaches: combining rewards and sanctions works best

Interventions based on encouraging positive behaviours can certainly be effective – though not in all contexts, and usually as a complement to compliance.
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6 February 2023
A man looks at two paintings on a wall. One painting is of a cane stick, the other is of a carrot.
Our literature review found that ethical leadership, behavioural nudging and anti-corruption messaging can help to reduce corruption – in certain settings. These ‘integrity interventions’ can complement direct anti-corruption policies, or they can be integrated into existing frameworks, combining carrot and stick. Photo: Midjourney CC BY-NC

The increasing popularity of integrity interventions

Encourage good behaviour instead of punishing bad behaviour: that is is the concept behind what we call ‘integrity-based interventions’ in anti-corruption. Integrity-based interventions represent a parallel agenda to more direct anti-corruption policies that focus on compliance, controls and enforcement to deter and punish the bad. They rely on ‘soft’ tools such as persuasion, socialisation, culture and communication. They have become increasingly common in anti-corruption efforts, partly because they may be less contentious and therefore easier to implement than more direct anti-corruption measures. But do they work?

Integrity-based approaches to anti-corruption rely on ‘soft’ tools such as persuasion, socialisation, culture and communication.

Like many in the anti-corruption world, we are intrigued by the potential of integrity-based approaches (see Anti-corruption through a social norms lens and this blog on the role of social norms in Burundi, for example). However, questions remain about their impact. This is why we surveyed the evidence in a new U4 Helpdesk Answer to gauge whether integrity-based efforts are effective in reducing corruption – and what, if anything, we can learn about how to improve them.

What is an integrity-based intervention?

We structured our Helpdesk Answer around several common intervention types (all of which aim to reduce corruption) taken from the OECD checklist for integrity management:

  • Codes of conduct
  • Integrity training
  • Ethical leadership
  • Peer group role models
  • ‘Nudges’ (ie, behavioural interventions)
  • Anti-corruption campaigns
  • Ombuds offices
  • Integrity oaths

Do integrity-based interventions reduce corruption?

The findings from our review of the literature were mixed. Ethical leadership and behavioural nudges can reduce corrupt practices – under certain conditions. But the evidence for the impact of other integrity-based approaches on corruption is either limited (not enough studies) or contested (the studies do not show a clear-cut positive effect, or evidence points both ways). For example, while a limited number of studies suggest that codes of conduct can reduce corruption, there is no evidence that they can work across all contexts, or that they work in isolation. There also seems to be no causal link, or even correlation, between anti-corruption training and reduced levels of corruption. Given how common such training is, this should give us pause for thought.

Of course, finding ‘limited evidence of effectiveness’ does not necessarily mean that integrity-based interventions do not work. Integrity is a relatively new research area and the volume of research evidence might still be small.

Integrity is a relatively new research area and the volume of research evidence might still be small.

With this limited evidence base, we should be cautious about making definitive conclusions. It also means that integrity-based measures require very careful thought around design choices. As documented with regards to integrity awards and anti-corruption public information campaigns, poorly conceived interventions could even backfire, resulting in a backlash against ‘integrity champions’ or increasing citizen apathy about corruption.

With this in mind, we seek below to draw out cross-cutting lessons that can help practitioners develop more impactful interventions, while a final table summarises the key findings of our literature review.

Integrity-based interventions are less effective in highly corrupt contexts

People are more likely to have entrenched attitudes and behaviours towards corruption in contexts where they encounter it more frequently. In certain contexts, people have few alternatives to corruption, for example as a way to access public services.

In countries where progress in curbing corruption is most needed, integrity-centric campaigns are likely to be less effective.

Accordingly, it seems reasonable to assume that in countries where progress in curbing corruption is most needed, integrity-centric campaigns are likely to be less effective. For example, in Burundi, only the ‘least experienced participants’ in a recent study exhibited any positive response to messages appealing to their professional integrity. Also studies of both nudging campaigns and integrity oaths suggest that individuals with ingrained habits and attitudes are resistant to interventions that aim to shift their behaviour.

Similarly, approaches that focus primarily on trying to reward integrity while neglecting material aspects (eg, salaries, access to jobs, market advantages, etc.) are unlikely to succeed. For example, in Chile, pro-integrity nudging campaigns had little impact on participants with a low level of ‘public service motivation’. Understanding context, such as the drivers of corruption and power structures, is important before launching integrity promotion campaigns.

Messaging and framing matters

Most integrity-based interventions seek to persuade through messages, and some messages are more successful than others. For example, behavioural science suggests that ‘all colleagues in the team behave ethically’ is likely to be a more effective message than ‘accepting gifts is immoral’. The first reinforces a perception that ethical practices are the norm in the surrounding social environment, and people will often align their behaviour to a norm. Accordingly, instead of reiterating an abstract situation detached from people's reality – that corruption is rampant and immoral – effective messages should consider how to challenge perceptions of expected behaviours.

Evidence from Papua New Guinea indicates that anti-corruption messages are most effective when they highlight the social cost of corruption to the local community.

It is also effective to align anti-corruption messages with people’s interests. For example, evidence from Papua New Guinea indicates that anti-corruption messages are most effective when they highlight the social cost of corruption to the local community. Conversely, integrity interventions that are incongruent with people’s lived reality are unlikely to be effective. Accordingly, participatory and inclusive approaches are likely to make integrity promotion more effective by engaging with people’s real experience and concerns.

The messenger also matters

When leaders are seen to be acting in a consistently ethical manner, studies show that other people are more aware of their ethical obligations and more willing to report wrongdoing. Setting the ‘tone from the top’ means that leaders trying to promote integrity must also demonstrate themselves a public, personal commitment to integrity.

Integrity is a complementary rather than a standalone approach

Our review suggests that integrity-based interventions do not work as standalone interventions. For instance, codes of conduct and codes of ethics (guidelines that appeal to the nature of employees) cannot reduce the perception of malpractice on their own, but must be combined with disciplinary codes to have a greater effect.

Integrity interventions can complement direct anti-corruption policies that seek to increase the cost of unethical behaviour, or they can be integrated into the existing regulatory and compliance frameworks, combining carrot and stick. For example, the literature recommends introducing integrity training into employee performance appraisals and adding integrity criteria into recruitment processes. Likewise, integrity campaigns that raise awareness of the material rewards available to whistleblowers can go hand in hand with mandatory reporting regulations.

The relatively low cost of integrity-based interventions makes them suited to being deployed as an ‘additional component’ of anti-corruption programmes targeting compliance and enforcement.

In fact, the relatively low cost of integrity-based interventions makes them suited to being deployed as an ‘additional component’ of anti-corruption programmes targeting compliance and enforcement. Linking anti-corruption policies to employee well-being and job satisfaction is also a way to generate a more positive and compliance-friendly environment.

The need for patience … and more research!

Finally, it’s important to recognise that some interventions will need long-term engagement. Studies have shown that the positive effects of integrity-based anti-corruptions interventions fell away sharply after the intervention ended.

The table below provides further detail on conditions for the effectiveness of integrity interventions. Ethical leadership and behavioural nudges are the interventions with the most evidence, yet other types of interventions should not be entirely disregarded until further research builds the evidence base.

At the risk of being researchers recommending more research – we need more research!

Table 1. Summary of U4’s literature review of integrity-based interventions in anti-corruption

Type of intervention

Evidence of effectiveness



Ethical leadership


  • Visible commitment of leaders to ethical standards is associated with more frequent reporting by staff of wrongdoing, as well as increased awareness among employees of their ethical obligations and organisational codes of conduct.
  • Observed unethical behaviour by ‘role models’ is a significant driver of wrongdoing among followers.

Hassan et al (2014)

Beeri et al (2013)

Camargo et al (2020)

Hanna et al (2013)

Behavioural nudges

Somewhat significant in low-corruption settings 

  • 62% of nudging treatments are statistically significant to change behaviour, although the size of the effect is usually small.
  • There is some evidence that ethical prompts, provided at the critical moment of decision-making, can improve integrity outcomes, but only for people with pre-existing disposition to integrity (no effect on people with ingrained habits or attitudes), and it tails off quickly. 
  • Nudges that appeal to individuals’ self-image and professional duty are more effective than generic anti-corruption messages.
  • In highly corrupt settings, nudging is less likely to shift behaviour towards integrity due to collective action problems.
  • Nudging campaigns are most effective when combined with strong enforcement mechanisms.

Hummel and Maedche (2019)

Venema and van Gestel (2021)

Köbis et al (2015)

Kassa and Camargo (2017)

Meyer-Sahling et al (2019)

Falisse and Leszczynska (2022)

Camargo et al (2020)

Integrity awards

Limited/ Contested

  • Integrity awards tend to increase public attention to integrity issues.
  • Awards have little impact where the intervention does not affect underlying material drivers of corruption (eg, salary).

Wijesinha (2018)

Accountability Lab (2018)

Buntaine et al (2022b)

Integrity oaths

Limited (lab experiments only)

  • Oaths can reduce the likelihood that people behave in an unethical manner, but only where they do not have existing ingrained habits and attitudes, (eg, they have no effect on ‘chronic liars’).

Jacquemet et al (2021)

Jacquemet et al (2020)

Anti-corruption messaging


  • Poorly designed public information campaigns about the prevalence of corruption can lead to frustration and apathy.
  • Messages about the extent or illegality of corruption have little impact; messages about the social cost on the local community can have a positive effect on willingness to report wrongdoing.
  • Targeting descriptive norms (‘others are doing it’) is more effective than injunctive norms (e.g. ‘corruption is immoral’)
  • The positive effect after treatment is short lived.

Falisse and Leszczynska (2022)

Peiffer (2017)

Cheeseman and Peiffer (2020)

Peiffer and Walton (2019) 

Köbis et al (2019)

Ombuds offices


  • Impact on reducing corruption is little studied and there is no consensus on metrics to assess effectiveness.
  • The presence of ombuds offices is correlated with lower perception of corruption in Latin America.

OECD (2018) 

Stuhmcke (2014)

Moreno (2016)

Codes of conduct/codes of ethics


  • Most empirical evaluations on the effectiveness of codes of conduct rely on employee perceptions or their stated intentions and only test for the existence rather than content of a code. 
  • A recent meta-analysis of empirical studies of codes in the private sector found the majority identify a positive relationship between codes and ethical intentions and behaviour.
  • Codes are more effective when visibly endorsed by senior managers and tailored to the specific needs of an organisation.
  • To be effective, codes of ethics need to be reinforced by disciplinary codes.

Kotzian et al (2021)

Babri et al (2021)

Meyer-Sahling et al (2020)

Integrity training

Very limited

  • It is very difficult to measure effectiveness: indicators are generally activity or output focused, such as number of participants trained, or their satisfaction with training.
  • There is no robust causal evidence that training results in higher integrity outcomes.

Meyer-Sahling and Mikkelsen (2022)

Cochrane (2019)

Steele et al (2016)

Van Montfort et al (2014)


    About the authors

    Guillaume Nicaise

    Guillaume Nicaise is a senior adviser at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Chr. Michelsen Institute. He leads the work on corruption risk management, organisational integrity, and the private sector. Guillaume has a doctorate in socio-anthropology, specialising in norms transfer and norms implementation, with a special focus on good governance mechanisms (transparency, accountability, and civic participation).

    David Jackson

    Dr. David Jackson leads U4’s thematic work on informal contexts of corruption. His research explores how an understanding of social norms, patron-client politics, and nonstate actors can lead to anti-corruption interventions that are better suited to context. He is the author of various book chapters and journal articles on governance issues and holds degrees from Oxford University, the Hertie School of Governance, and the Freie Universität Berlin.

    Matthew Jenkins

    Matt Jenkins is a Research and Knowledge Manager at Transparency International, where he runs the Anti-Corruption Helpdesk, an on-demand bespoke research service for civil society activists and development practitioners. Jenkins specialises in anti-corruption evaluations and evidence reviews, he has produced studies for the OECD and the GIZ, and has worked at the European Commission and think tanks in Berlin and Hyderabad.


    All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

    This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


    Photo: Midjourney CC BY-NC