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Who is more likely to contribute to the common good?

"Social desirability does not mean pro-social."

"Social desirability does not mean pro-social."

We had a pretty good time with that study about minority influence the other day so I'm eager to take on more social science for us to chew on. Unfortunately, the one that caught my eye this week isn't quite as straightforward as last week's.

Earlier this week I saw a link to this story on a blog with the teasing text, "Non-conformists are more inclined to work for the common good."

The actual study on which the story is based is a little more involved than that initial sentence I followed, but the themes it touches on are fun to think about and really relevant if you're frustrated with the recent successes of the anti-government movement so hopefully you'll agree this is worth sharing.

The idea is this (and please let me know if you understand it a different way): Some people psychologically crave social approval. Among the characteristics of these people who prioritize social desireablity is a tendency to describe themselves in a way that casts them in a positive light and they tend to conform to social norms. So this is how we arrive at talking about conformists.

The hypothesis going into the study was that people who conform to social norms would be more likely to act on behalf of the common good. If you identify with a group, you'd want to act in a way that benefits the group, right? Actually, not so much.

The nitty gritty, after the jump...

Initially the hypothesis looked good as the conformists responded positively to questions about how they felt about doing things for the common good. (In this part of the study, the common good in the question was represented by taxes. This is a UK study, and I wonder if American researchers would get away quite as easily with a common good/taxes equation without having to explain how government works to the study subjects. Or maybe the past two weeks have left me cynical...)

Anyway, the conformists in the study are cool with paying taxes and aren't even too bothered by the idea that some people get away with not paying their fair share of taxes.

Then the researchers took things a step further and set up a game to see if behavior would match the verbal responses. In the game, members of a group can pay into a pot. The pot earns interest, which everyone shares. Everyone shares in the pot's yield, even if they don't contribute. If everyone chips in, everyone wins bigger, but if you hold back from contributing, you keep your own money and then gain from the pot. So that's how the game pits self interest against common good.

Come to find out, the conformists who were expected to be more likely to contribute to the public good were ultimately less likely to do so.

The other factor at play in the experiment is approval (from the experimenter). Conformists and non-conformists were basically the same absent approval. Once approval kicked in, however, the non-conformists jumped right in while the conformists held back.

The wild card seems to be what the conformists are conforming to. Their answers about taxes weren't reflecting actual principles, but conformity with the cultural norm of paying taxes. Not contributing to the common good in the game may not have been selfishness but rather conforming with the group's growing pattern within the game.

Saying one thing and doing another, trying to find ways to get people to recognize and contribute to the common good, people falling in line with cultural norms and narratives without regard for the bigger picture, self interest versus common good... any of these things resonating with you in the wake of these past couple of weeks of political news?

It bears mentioning also that a large part of what these particular researchers have been working on is how to test for the concepts they're interested in. How do you create a sense of "common good" for a test subject and then how do you know if they're really contributing to it? What's the best way to set up a game or test to produce results that can be extrapolated to the real world?

Bonus read I found while looking for a free version of the study: Can Experimental Measures of Sensitivity to Social Pressure Predict Public Good Contribution? (Another Zizzo/Fleming joint.)