Skip to content


Harry Cassin
Publisher and Editor

Andy Spalding
Senior Editor

Jessica Tillipman
Senior Editor

Bill Steinman
Senior Editor

Richard L. Cassin
Editor at Large

Elizabeth K. Spahn
Editor Emeritus

Cody Worthington
Contributing Editor

Julie DiMauro
Contributing Editor

Thomas Fox
Contributing Editor

Marc Alain Bohn
Contributing Editor

Bill Waite
Contributing Editor

Shruti J. Shah
Contributing Editor

Russell A. Stamets
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong
Contributing Editor

Eric Carlson
Contributing Editor

Five behavioral science ‘effects’ every compliance officer should know

Compliance programs work most of the time because most people tend to respond in similar ways to similar circumstances. In behavioral science, those tendencies are sometimes called “effects.” Some effects can strengthen compliance programs; others can weaken them. So, knowing the good effects from the bad ones is crucial.

Here are five (of many) effects that compliance professionals should know.

Bandwagon effect:

The tendency to believe or do things because many other people believe or do them. This is also called groupthink and herd behavior.

Application to compliance: The more employees who adopt a particular way of behaving or thinking, the more likely it becomes that others will “hop on the bandwagon.” Looking at it another way, people will adopt the prevailing beliefs and practices of those around them because they fear being excluded and missing out. In organizations that openly value the rule of law and ethical behavior, most employees will adopt the same belief and practice. You may be tired of hearing about tone at the top, but it’s where the bandwagon effect begins.

Cobra effect:

Perverse incentives that produce the opposite result to the one intended. It got its name when British colonial officials in India wanted fewer dangerous cobras around. They offered a bounty for every dead snake. People started breeding cobras to collect the bounty. When the British officials caught on and canceled the program, the snake breeders released their now-worthless cobras, thereby increasing the danger to everyone.

Application to compliance: Enron’s board adopted a compensation plan that rewarded executives with huge bonuses whenever the company’s stock climbed to specific prices. Executives used off-the-books debt to create phony profits and inflate the company’s stock price. More recently, Wells Fargo rewarded managers based on how many different products (checking accounts, mortgage loans, credit cards) they could convince existing customers to use. Incentivized workers opened around two million product accounts for existing customers without their permission.

Identifiable victim effect:

Our tendency to respond more strongly to a single identified person at risk than to a large group of people at risk. We connect emotionally with individuals, not groups or categories of people.

Application to compliance: Thinking of graft as a victimless crime turns it into a meaningless abstraction. Similarly, saying corruption victimizes “millions of people” or “the most vulnerable” may be true but keeps the problem at arm’s length. But when compliance professionals and trainers connect graft to individual victims, the impact on listeners is magnified. Similarly, hearing from an individual (such as our contributing editor, Richard Bistrong) about self-inflicted professional and personal harm when they engaged in bribery is a powerful teaching and training technique.

Lag effect:

The phenomenon whereby learning is greater when lessons are spread over time instead of trying to learn the same lessons in one go. This is closely related to the spacing effect, whereby most people retain information better when there are longer breaks between repeated presentations of the same information.

Application to compliance: Crash courses and cramming aren’t the best way for most of us to learn and retain information. Because compliance training is only effective when it impacts thinking and behavior after the training session concludes, it’s better for the training to be spaced and repeated. One-and-done sessions might check the box. But they’re less likely to be effective in the field than successive training sessions separated by intervals.

Pratfall effect:

People become more likable when others see them make common mistakes. This is especially true with highly competent people who may otherwise seem unapproachable.

Application to compliance: Compliance professionals are usually serious people tightly focused on their mission. Seriousness and focus may be positive traits that employers look for. But to an audience of compliance trainees, those traits make the speaker and their message seem unrelatable. On the other hand, listeners respond warmly to a bit of self-deprecation. Thoughtful speakers often tell stories about mistakes they made, maybe an embarrassing faux pas, or a humbling at the hands of their boss, a sports coach, a restaurant waiter, or family member. Pratfall stories humanize speakers and make their message more welcome and meaningful.


Among other compliance-relevant “effects” are the verbatim effect, illusory truth effect, visual depiction effect, licensing effect, Ben Franklin effect, Streisand effect, and so on.

My main point here isn’t to catalog all the effects but to say that compliance programs only work because most people’s behavior is somewhat predictable. We tend to respond to similar circumstances in similar ways. That’s why knowing which effects to use or avoid increases the odds of compliance success, and we can all use more of that.

Share this post


Comments are closed for this article!