Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Evidence of "Perverse Punishment" and "Collectivist Socialization" Effects

Simon Gachter and Benedikt Herrmann present results in a new working paper on their public goods games experiments in urban and rural Russia (link to paper):

We report evidence from public goods experiments with and without punishment which we conducted in Russia with 566 urban and rural participants of young and mature age cohorts. Russia is interesting for studying voluntary cooperation because of its long history of collectivism, and a huge urban-rural gap. In contrast to previous experiments we find no cooperation-enhancing effect of punishment. An important reason is that there is substantial punishment of high contributors in all four subject pools. Thus, punishment can also undermine the scope for self-governance in the sense of high levels of voluntary cooperation that are sustained by sanctioning free riders only.

Elinor Ostrom's and Ernst Fehr's experiments in the 1990s caused quite a stir in the social sciences because they showed that people are willing to pay to punish others for not contributing to public goods. This type of pro-social behavior defied the predictions of "Nash"-type rational behavior in public goods games.

A line of skeptical inquiry since then has been to look into whether the results of these experiments are themselves endogenous to the social environment. Maybe Fehr's subjects---students from a Swiss university---were not products of a social environment that would make them representative of humankind, for example. Gachter and Herrmann's paper provides more evidence that this is indeed the case. For Russia, Gachter and Herrmann propose that varying exposure of "collectivization" programs would leave varying marks in the behavior of subjects. They find some supporting evidence: older people and rural people, both of whom were exposed to higher "doses" of collectivization, tend to contribute at higher rates in the public goods games.

The experiments thus become measuring devices for the effects of aspects of the social environment. With this being the case, researchers are now faced with an additional challenge. Not only do they have to work out the challenges of designing and implementing the experiment, but they have to do so in places where the effects of particular aspects of the social environment are identifiable. Behavioral experiments themselves do not produce generalizable results if the effects measured in the experiments are conditioned by unidentifiable environmental variables. While Gachter and Herrman's results are intriguing, should we accept that age and rurality map uniquely to collectivization experiences? Probably not. The lesson for me: when we are interested in developing generalizable knowledge about human behavior, behavioral experiments are strong measuring devices, but are nonetheless subject to identification problems associated with observational studies.

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