Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Does a picture make people more cooperative

In a standard economic experiment the anonymity of subjects is paramount. This is presumably because of a fear that subjects might behave differently if they knew others were 'watching them' in some sense. In the real world, however, our actions obviously can be observed much of the time. So, it would seem important to occasionally step out of the purified environment of the standard lab experiment and see what happens when we throw anonymity in the bin.
        A couple of experiments have looked at behavior in public good games without anonymity. Let me start with the 2004 study of Mari Rege and Kjetil Telle entitled 'The impact of social approval and framing on cooperation in public good games'. As is standard, subjects had to split money between a private account and group account, where contributing to the group account is good for the group. The novelty is in how this was done.
      Each subject was given some money and two envelopes, a 'group envelope' and 'private envelope', and asked to split the money between the envelopes. In a no-approval treatment the envelopes were then put in a box and mixed up before they were opened up and the contributions read out aloud. Note that in this case full anonymity is preserved because the envelopes are mixed up. In an approval treatment, by contrast, subjects were asked to publicly open their envelopes and write the contribution on the blackboard. Here there is zero anonymity because the contribution of each subject is very public.
        Average contributions to the group account were 44.8% (of the total amount) in the no-approval treatment and 72.8% in the approval treatment. So, subjects contributed a lot more when anonymity was removed.
        Similar results were obtained by James Andreoni and Ragan Petrie in a study entitled 'Public goods experiments without confidentiality'. Here, the novelty was to have photos of subjects together with their contributions to the group account, as in the picture below. In this case contributions increased from 26.9% in the absence of photos to 48.1% with photos. Again subjects contributed a lot more when anonymity was removed.

 
         So, why does anonymity matter? A study by Anya Samek and Roman Sheremeta, entitled 'Recognizing contributors' sheds some light on this. As well as treatments with no photos and everyone's photos they had treatments in which only the lowest and only the highest contributors had their photos displayed, as in the middle picture below.


          Again, photos made a big difference, increasing average contributions from 23.4% to 44.2%. Interestingly, displaying the photos of top contributors made little difference (up to 27.8%) while displaying the photos of the lowest contributors made a big difference (up to 44.9%). This would suggest that contributions increase without anonymity because subjects dislike being the lowest contributors. So, we are talking shame rather than pride.
       What do we learn from all this? Obviously we can learn interesting things by dropping anonymity.  In particular, we have learnt that contributions to group projects may be higher when individual contributions can be identified. Indeed, in a follow paper, entitled 'When identifying contributors is costly', Samek and Sheremeta show that the mere possibility of looking up photos increases contributions. That, though, raises some tough questions. If behavior is radically different without anonymity then is it good enough to keep on churning out results based on lab experiments with complete anonymity? I don't think it is. The three studies mentioned above have shown how anonymity can be dropped without compromising scientific rigor. More of that might be good. 

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