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Good institutions may prompt “fairer” behavior

May 5, 2014
Courtesy of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research
and World Science staff

Weak so­cial and po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions make peo­ple more likely to fa­vor their family and lo­cal so­cial group, while good in­sti­tu­tions make them more likely to fol­low “fair” im­pe­r­son­al rules, a study sug­gests.

A set of ex­pe­ri­ments found that peo­ple in so­ci­eties with sup­port­ive gov­ern­ment ser­vic­es, ad­e­quate food and in­sti­tu­tions that meet their bas­ic needs tended to fol­low im­par­tial rules about how to give out mon­ey. But peo­ple lack­ing these lines of sup­port showed fa­voritism to­ward their own groups.

“If you don’t have well-func­tion­ing gov­ern­ments then you need these kinds of mo­tiva­t­ions, be­cause then you’re do­ing what’s best for your group and for your lo­cal com­mun­ity,” said Jo­seph Hen­rich of the Uni­vers­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia, a co-author of the stu­dy, to ap­pear in the re­search jour­nal Hu­man Na­ture.

“Y­ou’re just try­ing to sur­vive in a world where there’s no a higher-level gov­ern­mental in­sti­tu­tions you can de­pend on,” added Hen­rich, al­so a sen­ior fel­low at the Tor­onto-based Ca­na­di­an In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Re­search.

Work­ing with par­ti­ci­pants in Bang­la­desh, Bo­liv­ia, Fi­ji, Chi­na, Ice­land and the Un­ited States, re­search­ers gave sub­jects half a day’s wages in cash and put them be­fore two cups. They told the sub­jects that the mon­ey placed in one cup would go to an un­spec­i­fied mem­ber of their com­mun­ity or group at the end of the game; mon­ey in the oth­er cup would go to an out­sid­er. Par­ti­ci­pants were then left alone.

Peo­ple from coun­tries with “ef­fec­tive” in­sti­tu­tions fa­vored lo­cals and out­sid­ers about equal­ly, the study found, while peo­ple from coun­tries with poor in­sti­tu­tions fa­vored their com­mun­ity mem­bers. The big­gest dif­fer­ences were found be­tween the Un­ited States and Bang­la­desh. At a U.S. church, the con­grega­t­ion ended up with 50.1 per cent of the share, but in a Bang­la­deshi vil­lage, where in­sti­tu­tions were con­sid­ered weaker, the sub­jects al­lot­ted 55.7 per cent of the mon­ey to their fel­low vil­lagers. 

“This gets in­side of peo­ple and ac­tu­ally af­fects their bas­ic mo­tiva­t­ions, even when they’re in a situa­t­ion when no one is watch­ing,” Hen­rich said.


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Weak social and political institutions make people more likely to favor their family and local social group, while good institutions make them more likely to follow “fair” impersonal rules, a study suggests. A set of experiments found that people in societies with supportive government services, adequate food and institutions that meet their basic needs tended to follow impartial rules about how to give out money. But people lacking these lines of support showed favoritism toward their own groups. “If you don’t have well-functioning governments then you need these kinds of motivations, because then you’re doing what’s best for your group and for your local community,” said Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia, a co-author of the study, to appear in the research journal Human Nature. “You’re just trying to survive in a world where there’s no a higher-level governmental institutions you can depend on,” added Henrich, also a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Working with participants in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Fiji, China, Iceland and the United States, researchers gave subjects half a day’s wages in cash and put them before two cups. They told the subjects that the money placed in one cup would go to an unspecified member of their community or group at the end of the game; money in the other cup would go to an outsider. Participants were then left alone. People from countries with “effective” institutions favored locals and outsiders about equally, the study found, while people from countries with poor institutions favored their community members. The biggest differences were found between the United States and Bangladesh. At a U.S. church, the congregation ended up with 50.1 per cent of the share, but in a Bangladeshi village, where institutions were considered weaker, the subjects allotted 55.7 per cent of the money to their fellow villagers. “This gets inside of people and actually affects their basic motivations, even when they’re in a situation when no one is watching,” Henrich said.