Frequency of enforcement is more important than the severity of punishment in reducing violation behaviors

Kinneret Teodorescu, Ori Plonsky, Shahar Ayal, Rachel Barkan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


External enforcement policies aimed to reduce violations differ on two key components: the probability of inspection and the severity of the punishment. Different lines of research offer different insights regarding the relative importance of each component. In four studies, students and Prolific crowdsourcing participants (Ntotal = 816) repeatedly faced temptations to commit violations under two enforcement policies. Controlling for expected value, we found that a policy combining a high probability of inspection with a low severity of fines (HILS) was more effective than an economically equivalent policy that combined a low probability of inspection with a high severity of fines (LIHS). The advantage of prioritizing inspection frequency over punishment severity (HILS over LIHS) was greater for participants who, in the absence of enforcement, started out with a higher violation rate. Consistent with studies of decisions from experience, frequent enforcement with small fines was more effective than rare severe fines even when we announced the severity of the fine in advance to boost deterrence. In addition, in line with the phenomenon of underweighting of rare events, the effect was stronger when the probability of inspection was rarer (as in most real-life inspection probabilities) and was eliminated under moderate inspection probabilities. We thus recommend that policymakers looking to effectively reduce recurring violations among noncriminal populations should consider increasing inspection rates rather than punishment severity.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2108507118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number42
StatePublished - 19 Oct 2021


  • Behavioral ethics
  • Cheating
  • Decisions from experience
  • Enforcement
  • Policy making

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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