Cooperation Driven by Shame and Honor

“Can the threat of being shamed or the prospect of being honored lead to greater cooperation?” In this study, participants were observed in a standardized experimental situation where they had to share limited resources. The participants were told that the names of two of the least generous players would be revealed at the end of the experiment. They were also told that the names of the two most cooperative players would also be announced. The incentives focused on the reputation of the participants and were not monetary in nature. The possibility of shame as well as honor resulted in participants exhibiting more generosity, thereby working towards a common good.

Traditionally, the chances of embarrassment prevent wrongdoing, while the possibility of honor encourages good deeds. This has led to the quest as to whether the avoidance of shame and the desire to be honored could be incentives for greater cooperation. Unlike medieval times, modern society does not use shame as a form of punishment. “Public goods experiments capture the tension between individual and group interest.” Overuse of common resources like natural gas and clean water for individual good harms the society. This study is based on a public goods game where players can donate from a personal stash of money to a common pool. When anonymity is maintained, generosity is mostly rare. The study examines whether the hope for a reward or the desire to avoid embarrassment makes people more generous.

* In this study, 180 science students from the University of British Columbia were divided into 3 groups and were tested for shame, honor and control. Each group was briefed and divided into 10 subgroups of six players, playing an identical game.
* Each was given a starting amount of 12 Canadian dollars and could donate $1 to a common pool. In this game, 12 rounds were played.
* The donations of the students were displayed publicly under their pseudonyms.
* In the shame group, real names of two least generous donors were revealed at the end, and in the honor group, names of the two most generous donors were revealed.
* In the control group, identities of all the players remained hidden. The players kept the money they had left plus equal amount from the public pool.

* Results showed that cooperation declined in all groups over the 12 rounds of donations.
* Generosity was markedly higher in shame group (average $33.8) and honor group (average $32.6) than in the control group (average $22.1).
* There was no significant difference in the total contribution observed between the shame and honor groups in the first 10 rounds. After the 10th round, cooperation went down in the shame group.
* Average contributions of the least and most generous persons of the two groups ($3 and $7.7 in the shame group, $2.4 and $8 in the honor group) were similar, showing that improvement in cooperation was not individual but general.

When individuals know that they are being watched, they behave more generously. In larger societies with modern ways of communication, direct watching is replaced by gossip via networking groups. Though modern judiciary does not use shame as punishment, it continues to exist. It is a kind of punishment imparted by the community. Today, through the power of the Internet, news travels fast, community grows bigger every day, and chances of experiencing both shame and honor have increased. Exposing only the most and the least generous gives an incomplete picture. The fear of being shamed and the hope for honor enhances cooperation of the members, and the society as a whole.

For More Information:
Shame and Honor Drive Cooperation
Publication Journal: Biology Letters, June 2011
By Jennifer Jacquet; Christoph Hauert
From the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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