Testing local descriptive norms and salience of enforcement action: A field experiment to increase tax collection

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Christopher Larkin
Michael Sanders
Isabelle Andresen
Felicity Algate


Taxation, Social norms, Reference groups, Subnational, Randomized controlled trial


The use of behavioral science interventions, and particularly social norms, in tax compliance is a growing industry for scholars and practitioners alike in recent years. However, the causal mechanism of these interventions is unknown, where effects could be explained by a pro-social desire to support one’s community, conditional cooperation, desire to conform, or fear of reprisals. We conduct a field experiment in local government taxation in the United Kingdom which tests the effectiveness of a social (descriptive) norm against a control condition and against messages that highlight the enforcement process. The social norm outperforms enforcement salience, suggesting that this explanation, although more powerful than the control, does not fully explain compliance effects. This study further provides evidence that social norm type interventions can be effective at the subnational level, a context where previous work has shown they may produce null effects.

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