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

Serra questioned long-standing assumptions; found corruption declines as perpetrators take into account social costs of their illegal activities

Excerpt

The following is from the Dec. 13, 2017, edition of EurekAlert. 

December 14, 2017

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."

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