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SMU economist wins $50,000 “budding genius” prize with highly cited corruption research

SMU economist wins recognition for extensive landmark research on corruption.

Serra questioned long-standing assumptions; found corruption declines as perpetrators take into account social costs of their illegal activities, and as victims share information about specific bribery exchanges through online reporting systems.

Guilt and shame play a role in reducing bribery, according to research by economist Danila Serra, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

As an economist who has studied bribery behavior extensively, Serra has discovered that bribery declines if potentially corrupt agents are made aware of the negative effects of corruption, and when victims can share specific information about bribe demands through online reporting systems.

An assistant professor in the SMU Department of Economics, Serra’s research methodology is unique — relying on lab experiments in which players gain and lose real money. Her work is frequently cited by other researchers studying the field of bribery.

In November the directors and officers of the International Foundation for Research in Experimental Economics honored Serra as the inaugural recipient of the $50,000 Vernon L. Smith Ascending Scholar Prize. The Smith Prize is described by the foundation as a “budding genius” award.

“Dr. Serra’s accomplishments have marked her as an ascending scholar, teacher, mentor and colleague of exceptional promise,” said a statement from the foundation.

The prize is named for Nobel Laureate Vernon L. Smith, considered the father of experimental economics. It aims to build on his legacy and inspire recipients, early on in their careers, to set the loftiest possible goals for themselves as social-science theorists, practitioners, colleagues, mentors and truth seekers, the foundation said.

Serra’s interest in understanding bribery transformed in 2005 when she became frustrated by measurement problems and the difficulty of finding good data. Her goal was to identify and understand the causes of corruption, and in particular whether non-monetary motivations, social norms and culture play any role in corruption decision-making. During her Ph.D. work at the University of Oxford, economist Abigail Barr exposed Serra to lab experiments, a relatively new methodology for the field of economics.

“I was always interested in corruption. As soon as I discovered the field of experimental economics I decided to design and implement bribery experiments,” Serra said. “I recreate the situation I want to study in a laboratory setting, employing real monetary incentives, which we provide, and with scenarios where the subjects can make corruption decisions that increase their money at the expense of other players. The play is anonymous and they get to bring home the money they earn in the experimental setting.”

Corruption isn’t purely about money
The focus of Serra’s research sharpened further when she began to question the root assumption that guilt and shame don’t play a role in bribery. She found in laboratory experiments that the intrinsic costs of guilt and shame do matter, and that corruption isn’t purely a matter of money.

She found that corruption declines when potentially corrupt agents are made aware of the negative impact of their actions, and when bottom-up anti-corruption mechanisms are in place, such as victims sharing specific information about bribe demands. Serra also found evidence of a significant relationship between corruption and culture.

“In one of my early studies, I employed a sample of international students at the University of Oxford and found among undergraduate students that the level of corruption in their home country predicts their propensity to engage in corruption in my bribery experiment,” she said.

“This is what we’d expect, they have internalized corrupt norms,” Serra said. “But the surprising result is that this wasn’t true for graduate students. We concluded that graduate students do not conform to the prevailing social norms of their home countries and, possibly, they want to distance themselves from such norms.”

Serra’s research has produced 12 papers on bribery and she has edited a book about experimental research on corruption. Her work on corruption has been cited hundreds of times by other researchers in the field. She has also investigated issues related to governance, public service provision and bottom-up accountability in developing countries. More recently, she has embarked on new research exploring gender differences in behaviors and outcomes in a variety of contexts, including students’ choices of major.

Serra launched and is co-leader of the Laboratory for Research in Experimental Economics at SMU’s Economics Department in the Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences.

The Vernon L. Smith Ascending Prize for Serra is a major professional recognition of the profound impact of her pioneering research in the area of experimental public economics and in particular on the understanding of corruption and other forms of rule breaking, said SMU economist Santanu Roy, chair of the SMU Department of Economics and University Distinguished Professor.

“She is one of the most cited economists of her generation,” Roy said. “The prize comes with a $50,000 award which, as far as I know, is the largest amount awarded as a prize for young economists. The fact that Dr. Serra was chosen to receive the inaugural prize named for the father of experimental economics tells us about the high expectations that her peers have about her future research productivity.”

Economics as an empirical discipline
The Smith Prize seeks to inspire early-career scholars to emulate Smith’s joyous zeal for scientific discovery. It may be used flexibly to advance social science in whatever manner a recipient chooses, the foundation said.

The prize is made possible through the Rasmuson Foundation and other contributors.

As a social scientist, Smith was committed to exploring theoretical foundations in economics, social science, and science generally; achievement in the form of quantifiable impacts in transforming economics into an experimental and more empirical discipline; collegiality in funding, mentoring, and collaborating with fellow scholars; and curiosity in looking beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries in search of truth.

“The International Foundation for Research in Experimental Economics heartily congratulates Dr. Serra and looks forward to following her career in the years to come,” the statement said. — Margaret Allen, SMU

By Margaret Allen

Senior research writer, SMU Public Affairs