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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra De Filippo, BIT North America

Edutainment for anti-corruption: 3-step approach using behavioral science to make it more effective

By Alexandra De Filippo, Humma Sheikh

Leveraging entertaining media for educational purposes — a.k.a. edutainment — has been long celebrated for its potential to reach people at scale and to influence entrenched social norms. Soul City in South Africa and MTV’s Shuga in Nigeria are examples of TV shows that dealt with complex issues and produced encouraging results, including increased willingness to seek and offer help in cases of domestic violence, more HIV testing and safer sex among teenagers.

The potential of drama to change lives isn’t limited to love and relationships. Scandal! managed to discourage gambling and promote responsible debt management. These studies show that edutainment can change behaviors with underlying complex motivations. This creates hope that similar approaches can influence the individual behaviors that create systemic corruption.

Yet, not all media campaigns are created equal. Numerous studies (see Blane, 1977; Deci, 1971; Miller, 2016) show that providing factual information can be insufficient in promoting sustainable behavior change. This raises the question: what makes edutainment effective?

In response to these points, we set out to support the MacArthur Foundation’s On Nigeria program — an effort to reduce corruption by supporting Nigerian-led efforts that strengthen accountability, transparency, and participation.

Our role has been to coach Nigerian edutainment and faith-based organizations on how they can leverage behavioral insights — the study of how people make decisions and why — to strengthen their anti-corruption programming. As organizations with the potential to disseminate information through network effects (Valente, 2016), edutainment producers and faith-based organizations have a promising entry point to promote critical reflection about corruption and to encourage new behaviors.

While extreme cases of corruption might require an enforcement approach, a behavioral insights approach is well-poised to influence the decisions that fuel petty or opportunistic corruption. Taking lessons from behavioral science, we have encouraged our Nigerian partners to focus on three key ingredients to make their communications more effective at shifting behaviors: the What, Why, and How.

  1. Show Nigerians what they can do instead of corrupt behaviors,

  2. Address people’s justifications for why it’s okay to engage in corruption, and

  3. Help them figure out how to do it.

Tell people what they can do

Our starting point was to understand the context in which people make decisions, as this can have a significant impact on the outcome of those decisions. Working closely with our partners, we conducted interviews with Nigerians — from residents seeking government services and civil servants to small business owners and university students, among others — to understand the motivations behind corrupt practices and the trade-offs they encounter on a daily basis. This also allowed us to identify the specific, individual-level behaviors and beliefs that create the collective condition of corruption.

We found that, while there is a widespread awareness and condemnation of corruption in principle, people lacked options and the means to combat it. For instance, people often lacked ideas for what they could or should do if they were faced with corruption, or if they witnessed it occurring among their peers. Giving people examples of concrete actions they can take in common scenarios of corruption — such as being stopped by traffic police demanding a bribe or denied entrance to a school or hospital unless you pay a ‘fee’ — can address this gap.

This may seem simple, but many of the anti-corruption messages out there are either too vague (e.g. act with integrity) or negatively phrased (e.g. don’t pay bribes). Our interviews showed that these types of messages were open to interpretation. They also miss an opportunity to help listeners plan or visualize how they can get out of a tough situation, like reporting the corrupt cop or demanding your right to free education and healthcare.

Here are some strategies that make the what more actionable and realistic:

In our work with Nigerian organizations, we asked partners to identify the negative trends they were confronting and to make explicit the positive behaviors that people could adopt instead. These insights helped refine ‘the ask’, becoming either direct calls to action or behaviors to be role modelled through credible messengers, or even fictional characters. In the case of a religious organization, this meant highlighting the stories of pastors doing the right thing when confronted with potential corruption.

Another organization realized through this exercise that people lacked realistic alternatives to wrongdoing when they spotted corruption. They responded by partnering with the Federal Road Safety Commission to develop the FlagIt App, which makes it easy and accessible for people to report corruption.

Messages that show listeners how to effectively circumvent corruption can also help them get over the widespread helplessness (or that feeling of “there is nothing I can do to change things”) that was so prevalent among our interviewees.

Give a reason why people should change their behavior

Corruption takes many forms, from nepotism to embezzlement, so it’s not surprising that people find many ways to justify to themselves and others why their behavior is acceptable or even needed. Humans are motivated to do this act of self-justification quite naturally to maintain a positive self-image, a phenomenon Dan Ariely calls the fudge factor. Therefore, creating messages that speak to people’s real motivation or justifications for engaging in corruption is more relatable and can help them develop an intention to change, where motivation may be lacking. Being nuanced about particular situations — meaning adapting your message to each ‘What’ — also helps since we humans can be very sophisticated in our self-justification, finding reasons to brush off good arguments with a stroke of ‘this case is different.’

Another interesting insight to keep in mind is the amount of wiggle room we give ourselves to make decisions, even if they are not ones we fully intend to make, is affected by our environmental cues. This includes the physical space and social influences surrounding us. For example, if someone feels that it is “normal” to engage in corruption, then they will be more likely to engage in it too. This can be exacerbated when there is low social trust — meaning that people don’t trust others, creating room for more transactional interactions — or when they are able to ‘split the spoils’ by sharing any gains from corruption with someone else.

People can also tap into good deeds they’ve done in the past to preserve their positive self-image in the face of bad behavior, a tendency known as moral licensing. Last but not least, our perceived likelihood of getting caught and facing social, financial or criminal sanctions can also have a strong impact on our behavior.

The distinction between these motivations matters, so we encouraged our Nigerian partners to use these insights when creating tailored campaigns.

Diagnosing the Why

We developed a tool – “Diagnosing the Why” – that makes it easy for organizations to take insights from the behavioral science literature to diagnose common reasons people use to justify their own corrupt behavior and identify evidence-based strategies as antidotes. Here are some examples:

This tool requires that we be more nuanced and thoughtful about why our audience might think a specific corrupt behavior is acceptable. It starts with putting ourselves in that situation and asking ourselves, “how might a person justify their behavior to themselves and others?” We can then identify ways to use communication campaigns to challenge the validity of that justification.

Use behavioral techniques to help people understand how to change their behavior

Life can get in the way even when people have the right intention and information to know what to do. As we can see through the “why”, there are a variety of reasons for this poor follow-through. Sometimes people believe they can’t change (helplessness); others feel that it’s okay to engage in corruption because everyone does it (normalization). The “how” stage is all about using evidence-based behavioral techniques to counteract the most common reasons why people engage in corruption change their behavior.

Here are some examples of how you can support people with the how through communications:

When it comes to figuring out the how, we can start by referring to literature that shows what has worked to overcome similar behavioral justifications and adapting those findings to local contexts. For example, behavioral research shows that, because of social signalling (how you want to be perceived by others) when people make public commitments, they are more likely to change their behavior. Research also shows that planning and the intention to implement a new behavior makes it easier to achieve that change. Encouraging people to make social commitments or plans for their future could then make communication campaigns more effective.

And of course, this is not the end of it. For people to engage with communications, content needs to be engaging and entertaining. This is a key tenant of edutainment and one that we would do well to remember when creating even the most evidenced campaigns. Combining evidence from the behavioral sciences with content that is attractive and easy to understand will help to make information stick.

What’s next?

We know that this approach isn’t perfect yet — more rigorous research and evaluation would be needed to confirm how well this worked. Especially, more work is needed to understand whether edutainment can meaningfully tackle such a complex problem as corruption and whether individual-level behavior change can, over time, result in community level shifts. But grounding ourselves in the literature as a starting point offers opportunities to make campaigns more tailored and effective.


About the Author

Alexandra De Filippo is a Principal Advisor at BIT North America. She focuses on the application of behavioral insights to improve the effectiveness of programs in the international development and humanitarian fields. Part of her work explores how to leverage behavioral insights to tackle complex issues, from shifting social norms to reduce and mitigate violence against women and children to supporting vulnerable populations in humanitarian crises to combating corruption. Alexandra also specializes in capacity building, training partners through hands-on work on projects and training workshops.

Alexandra holds a Bachelor in Business Administration from the University of Miami, earning a summa cum laude distinction, and a Master’s in Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Before joining BIT, Alexandra acquired experience in the public and private sectors, starting her career as an analyst at Citigroup and later advising federal and local governments from a variety of roles. This includes analytical positions at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, Castalia Strategic Advisors, and the City of New Orleans.

Humma Sheikh is an Associate Advisor on the International Development team at BIT North America. Prior to BIT, Humma worked as a behavior change consultant for UNICEF Communications for Development and PCI Media Impact. Her work has focused on the application of behavioral science in the international development space, including using qualitative research methods to develop behavioral communication strategies in global epidemics. Humma holds an MPH from NYU College of Global Public Health and a BS in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester.


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