Measuring Social Norms and Preferences Using Experimental Games: A Guide for Social Scientists

Summary of: Measuring Social Norms and Preferences Using Experimental Games: A Guide for Social Scientists

Author(s) / Editor(s)

In addition to self-interested behavior, various experimental games have been able to quantifiably demonstrate behavior with preferences for altruism, equality and reciprocity, reflections of a human dedication to social norms even at personal cost.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
Oxford University Press
Date
2004

Findings

  • One benefit of game experiments is that they are relatively comparative across subject pools and cultures (at least as comparative as most qualitative experiments) and easily replicable.
  • Experimental evidence supports theories of "altruistic punishment," in which the visibility of punishment for free-riders increases the level of cooperation in a population.
  • Future social preferences theories should attempt to explain pro-social behavior with one model across multiple games and make predictions that can be tested and falsified.
  • Evolution equips people with the cognitive ability to learn social norms and resulting strategies rather than having them hard-wired into the brain. This enables humans to create institutions for generating public goods, even at the expense of individual contributors.

The seven games explored here, ultimatum, public goods, dictator, prisoner's dilemma, trust, gift-exchange, and third party punishment, can be used both as metaphor to describe prototypical situations in the social world and as a tool to predict the behavior of players in the context of other players' likely actions. Data on the responses of real players can help guide the formation of successful and sustainable institutions for collective action. In a public goods game, for instance, contributions to the public good declined over repeated periods as cooperative players eventually became frustrated with an instigating group of free-riders. Once the structure of the game is altered to allow for punishment of free riders, the average contribution rises steeply to over 95 percent of the endowment. The actual rate of punishment does not have to be that high to generate this increase either; "the mere threat of punishment, and the memory of its sting from past punishments, is enough to induce potential free riders to cooperate."

Another alteration that increases cooperation is permitting communication. "Communication allows the conditional cooperators to coordinate on the cooperative outcome and it may also create a sense of group identity." In the trust game, an investor gives an amount to a trustee, which is tripled and the trustee can give any amount from all to nothing back to the investor. Positive reciprocity, a sense of obligation to repay trusting investors that arises in the trust game, is an important key to harnessing cooperation. Implicit social contracts built on the basis of positive reciprocity are cheaper to implement and can be more successful than explicit contracts.

The environment of our evolutionary adaptation can theoretically explain the origin of these preferences in repeated game settings. Evolution equips people with the cognitive ability to learn social norms and resulting strategies rather than having them hard-wired into the brain. This accords with the game theory conclusion that the best strategy depends on the structure of social relations and potential for norms to take hold and be effective.