"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Shame and honor boost cooperation equally: study

March 30, 2005
Courtesy of the University of British Columbia
and World Science staff

Hon­or and shame work equally well in en­cour­ag­ing coop­era­t­ion, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

Con­cepts such as “shame and hon­or might evoke im­ages of The Scar­let Let­ter or The Three Mus­ke­teers, but as tac­tics to drive so­cial coop­era­t­ion, they are in­creas­ingly im­por­tan­t,” said Jen­ni­fer Jacquet, a post­doc­tor­al fel­low at the Un­ivers­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia and lead au­thor of a re­port on the find­ings.

Jacquet said such reputa­t­ional fac­tors might be needed to help tack­le press­ing 21st-century prob­lems such as over­fish­ing and cli­mate change. In the era “of You­Tube, Face­book and Twit­ter… acts of shame and hon­or are be­ing shared and prop­a­gated with un­prec­e­dent­ed speed,” she added.

Pub­lished June 1 in the re­search jour­nal Bi­ol­o­gy Let­ters, the study re­ported on ex­pe­ri­ments with 180 first-year stu­dents at the un­ivers­ity. Stu­dents were di­vid­ed in­to groups of six to play a game in which each play­er was giv­en $12 to beg­in. Over 12 rounds, play­ers were then asked to de­cide pri­vately wheth­er to con­trib­ute a dol­lar to a pub­lic pool – the to­tal of which would be dou­bled and equally dis­trib­ut­ed among all play­ers re­gard­less of wheth­er they con­trib­uted or not. This gene­rated a tempta­t­ion to with­hold con­tri­bu­tions and free-ride on those of oth­ers.

At the end, all stu­dents got to keep the rest of their $12, plus their share of the pool.

But in some games, play­ers were al­so told that af­ter 10 rounds the two least – or most – gen­er­ous play­ers would be asked to re­veal their ident­i­ties in front of the oth­er play­ers. The oth­er four would re­main anon­y­mous. Par­ti­ci­pants were re­cruited from the same class at the beg­inning of the term to en­sure that they would meet again.

The team found that each of these con­di­tions led to 50 per­cent more coop­era­t­ion (a­bout $33 in to­tal con­tri­bu­tion) com­pared to ex­pe­ri­ments where all par­ti­ci­pants re­mained anon­y­mous (a­bout $22 in to­tal con­tri­bu­tion).

Shame and hon­or are in­creas­ingly used to af­fect pol­i­cy and change cul­tures, Jacquet said. For ex­am­ple, to de­ter tax eva­sion, many U.S. states re­cently im­ple­mented poli­cies to post names of tax delin­quents on­line. Large-scale con­serva­t­ion pro­grams use hon­or to en­cour­age cor­po­rate and pub­lic in­volve­ment, such as la­bels that tell con­sumers prod­ucts are sus­tain­a­ble. The new study is part of a se­ries to es­tab­lish a sci­en­tif­ic founda­t­ion that in­forms fu­ture strate­gies to en­cour­age coop­era­t­ion on glob­al is­sues.

“In con­trast to pre­vi­ous stud­ies, the real-life reputa­t­ion of our par­ti­ci­pants was at stake,” said co-au­thor Ar­ne Traulsen from German­y’s Max Planck In­sti­tute for Ev­o­lu­tion­ary Bi­ol­o­gy. “This could be a pre­req­ui­site for shame and hon­or to work in oth­er con­texts.”

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Honor and shame work equally well in encouraging cooperation, according to a new study. Concepts such as “shame and honor might evoke images of The Scarlet Letter or The Three Musketeers, but as tactics to drive social cooperation, they are increasingly important,” said Jennifer Jacquet, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia and lead author of a report on the findings. Jacquet said such reputational factors might be needed to help tackle pressing 21st-century problems such as overfishing and climate change. In the era “of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter… acts of shame and honor are being shared and propagated with unprecedented speed,” she added. Published June 1 in the research journal Biology Letters, the study reported on experiments with 180 first-year students at the university. Students were divided into groups of six to play a game in which each player was given $12 to begin. Over 12 rounds, players were then asked to decide privately whether to contribute a dollar to a public pool – the total of which would be doubled and equally distributed among all players regardless of whether they contributed or not. This generated a temptation to withhold contributions and free-ride on those of others. At the end, all students got to keep the rest of their $12, plus their share of the pool. But in some games, players were also told that after 10 rounds the two least – or most – generous players would be asked to reveal their identities in front of the other players. The other four would remain anonymous. Participants were recruited from the same class at the beginning of the term to ensure that they would meet again. The team found that each of these conditions led to 50 percent more cooperation (about $33 in total contribution) compared to experiments where all participants remained anonymous (about $22 in total contribution). Shame and honor are increasingly used to affect policy and change cultures, Jacquet said. For example, to deter tax evasion, many U.S. states recently implemented policies to post names of tax delinquents online. Large-scale conservation programs use honor to encourage corporate and public involvement, such as labels that tell consumers products are sustainable. The new study is part of a series to establish a scientific foundation that informs future strategies to encourage cooperation on global issues. “In contrast to previous studies, the real-life reputation of our participants was at stake,” said co-author Arne Traulsen from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology. “This could be a prerequisite for shame and honor to work in other contexts.”