The authors of this research teach on the CEMS Masters in Management program at the Norwegian School of Economics – and this Idea is part of our CEMS series.
A large field experiment involving Norwegian taxpayers underreporting foreign income reveals that the probability of detection deters the greatest number of potential non-compliant taxpayers; moral arguments sways fewer non-compliant taxpayers but inspires those who listen to significantly increase their reported income.
Norwegian citizens making money abroad must report this income to two tax authorities: the authorities of Norway and the authorities of the country where they made the money. In order to avoid taxes, a number of these citizens underreport their foreign income to the Norwegian authorities — not realizing that most foreign countries send the income figures they receive from Norwegian citizens to Norway! As a result, Norwegian tax authorities know when a citizen underreports foreign income.
Using this unique situation, a recent study explored different persuasive approaches for discouraging tax evasion. Specifically, the study involved sending letters to 15,000 Norwegian citizens who likely underreported their foreign income in their previous tax return. The letters were sent just before they were to report their taxable income.
The researchers divided these 15,000 citizens into five groups as follows:
The researchers then compared the response of the taxpayers in the five groups by analysing their reported foreign income in the follow-up year (the first tax return after receiving the letter) and one year later — with the latter representing a long-term response.
The analysis of these returns yielded the following results:
Companies and leaders can use the insights from the results of this research to guide how they discourage law- or rule-breaking or -bending on the part of their employees and managers. As the approach with the greater extensive impact, detection probability is probably the most effective in most situations: you want the greatest number of employees and managers to respond to the threat that they will be found out.
The moral suasion approach seems to appeal to people who have already demonstrated some scruples (in the example above, the taxpayers who had reported some foreign income, just not all of it), and draws a more intense response. Perhaps in the case of a suspected transgression by leaders or employees with a previously clean record, appealing to their moral core would have an impact.
Intuitively, and reinforced by this research, the worst option is to do nothing. Once people successfully break the rules, they rarely stop.
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