Negative image of people produces selfish actions

People's opinion of others determines how cooperative they are

April 12, 2011

The expectations people have about how others will behave play a large role in determining whether people cooperate with each other or not. And moreover that very first expectation, or impression, is hard to change. "This is particularly true when the impression is a negative one," says Michael Kurschilgen from the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods in Bonn, summarising the key findings of a study in which he and his colleagues Christoph Engel and Sebastian Kube examined the results of so-called public good games. One’s own expectation thereby becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: those who expect people to act selfishly, actually experience uncooperative behaviour from others more often.

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In previous studies, other researchers had successfully put participants in Bonn and London into a social dilemma with such games, which are very popular in experimental economics. Engel, Kube and Kurschilgen used them as a template for their study, which focuses on an aspect that ought to be of interest to social policymakers and town planners too. "We wanted to find out whether the 'broken windows' theory held true in the lab as well," explained Michael Kurschilgen.

According to this theory, minor details, like broken windows in abandoned buildings or rubbish on the streets, can give rise to desolate conditions like the utter neglect of a district. "Such signs of neglect give people the impression that social standards do not apply there," says Kurschilgen, explaining the idea behind the theory, which was the motivation behind New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's decision to embark on the zero-tolerance strategy he employed to clean up the city in the 1990s.

In their study, the three MPI scientists tested the theory in a scientific experiment. Using the kind of public good games that are often applied in the field of experimental economics, their aim was to find out the extent to which first impressions determine how people will behave, and the extent to which this can be influenced by selective information. The games are set up around the classic dilemma of self-interest and socially minded behaviour: each member of a group of four players is given the sum of 20 tokens They can either keep these for themselves or invest them in a community project. Each player receives 0.4 tokens in return for each tokens they invest in the community project. If all four group members invest their 20 tokens, each one of them receives 32 tokens, in other words 12 tokens more than if they all keep the money for themselves. But if only three of them invest their money in the community, the selfish fourth player gets 44 tokens.

So even the free rider profits from the other players' investment in the community fund. "The public good game thus creates a social dilemma," explains the economist. That's because it would be best for the community if everybody invested in the collective. However, on an individual level the free rider gets the best out of it. They ultimately receive the bonus without having made the investment.

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