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Pro-Social Behavior

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With Stephan MeierEdit

American Economic Review 2004 (does not cite JEBO 2004), apparently has an extra round of observations, where people were told how many other people give to charity. This is of course an interesting extension of the JEBO paper.

Note that the papers cite each other - at least in the reference list. JEBO also cites the other paper, which has probably not been accepted by AER at the time of printing the JEBO article.

Title of the AER 2004 paper:

Social Comparisons and Pro-Social Behavior: Testing "Conditional Cooperation" in a Field Experiment” 

Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 2004, title:

“Pro-social behavior in a natural setting


“Many important activities, such as charitable giving, voting, and paying taxes, are difficult to explain by the narrow self-interest hypothesis. In a large number of laboratory experiments, the self-interest hypothesis was rejected with respect to contributions to public goods (e.g., John O. Ledyard, 1995).”


“Studies of important activities, such as charitable giving (e.g. Andreoni, 2002; Weisbrod, 1998), voting (e.g. Mueller, 2003), and tax paying (e.g. Slemrod, 1992; Andreoni et al., 1998), have convincingly argued that such actions cannot be explained by relying on the strict self-interest axiom. Thus, for example, it has been stated that “[A] purely economic analysis of the evasion gamble implies that most individuals would evade if they are ‘rational’, because it is unlikely that cheaters will be caught and penalised” (Alm et al., 1992, p. 22; similarly Graetz andWilde, 1985; Skinner and Slemrod, 1985). But most people actually pay their tax dues. Tax payment can therefore be considered a “quasi-voluntary act” (Levi, 1988). The self-interest model has been clearly rejected in a great number of laboratory experiments (see Ledyard, 1995; Davis and Holt, 1993 for surveys).”


“Recent theories on pro-social behavior focus on "conditional cooperation": people are assumed to be more willing to contribute when others contribute. This behavior may be due to various motivational reasons, such as conformity, social norms, or reciprocity. According to the theory of conditional cooperation, higher contribution rates are observed when information is provided that many others contribute.”


“According to the notion of ‘conditional cooperation’ people contribute to a public good dependent on the behavior of others. An individual dislikes being a ‘sucker’, being the only one who contributes to a public good while the others free-ride. The more a person believes that others cooperate, the greater is the probability that this person contributes too. As stated above, such social comparison can be due to various motivational mechanisms, such as a social norm to behave appropriately. To test this notion, the students were asked in a large-scale online survey howmany other students they expect will contribute. The results of our survey show that expectations about others correlate with the individual decision to contribute to the Social Funds.”


“Only a few laboratory experiments circumvent these problems and explicitly test conditional cooperation (e.g., Urs Fischbacher et al., 2001). These studies conclude that roughly 50 percent of people increase their contribution if others do so as well.”


“In a recent standard public good experiment, for example, it was identified that, according to this definition, roughly 50 percent of the subjects are conditional cooperators, while a third of the subjects act as free riders (Fischbacher et al., 2001). According to this study, the observation that cooperation declines after repetition in public goods games4 is due to conditional cooperation: people adjust their contribution according to what others do, but give slightly less.”


“Each semester, every student at the University of Zurich is asked to decide anonymously whether to contribute to two charitable funds”


“Each semester, all the students at the University of Zurich have to decide whether or not they want to contribute to two official Social Funds in addition to the compulsory tuition”


“They can make a voluntary donation of CHF 7 (about $4.20) to a fund that offers low-interest loans to students in financial difficulty and/or CHF 5 (about $3) to a fund supporting foreign students. They have the further option not to donate to either fund.”


“the students are asked whether they want to give a specific amount of money (CHF 7.-, about US$ 4.20) to a Fund that offers cheap loans to students in financial difficulties and/or a specific amount of money (CHF 5.-, about US$ 3) to a second Fund supporting foreigners who study at the University of Zurich. Without their explicit consent (by marking a box), students do not contribute to any Fund at all.”


“while experimental research in laboratories leads to many insights about human behavior, it is still unclear exactly how these results can be applied outside of the laboratory. Our field experiment enables this gap to be narrowed, while still controlling for relevant variables.”


“The experimental evidence may teach us a lot about human behavior. However, it remains an open question how best these results can be applied outside the lab. This paper wants to fill this gap by testing behavioral theories in a naturally occurring situation, thus bringing back external validity to the test of pro-social behavior.”

7 AER “We observe that the higher the expectation of the students about the average group behavior, the more likely it is that they contribute. Students expect, on average, 57 percent of their fellow students to contribute to both funds. They underestimate the actual contribution rate of 67 percent. The coefficient of correlation between the expressed expectations and the contribution to at least one fund is 0.34 (p <0.001).”

7 JEBO “The results of our survey show that expectations about others correlate with the individual decision to contribute to the Social Funds. The coefficient of the correlation between the expressed expectation and the contribution to at least one Fund is 0.34. This correlation is quite large and statistically significant at a 99 percent-level (F1,3168 = 415.47,P < 0.01).”


“A change in expectations from 46 percent to 64 percent corresponds to a change in the probability of contributing by around 5.3 percentage points.”

8 JEBO “An increase of the perceived cooperation of others by 10 percentage points increases the individual probability of contributing by 6 percentage points.”


Frey, Bruno S., and Stephan Meier. 2004. "Social Comparisons and Pro-social Behavior: Testing "Conditional Cooperation" in a Field Experiment." American Economic Review, 94(5): 1717-1722.

Frey, Bruno S., and Stephan Meier. 2004. "Pro-social behavior in a natural setting", Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 54(1), 65–88.

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