Cooperation in the lab vs. real world

A recent outpouring of naturalistic studies on cooperation brought 3 interesting pieces of research with somewhat counter-intuitive results.

1. Prisoners without dilemmas

The Prisoner’s Dilemma game has been with us since 1950, but only now has someone bothered to check whether actual prisoners behave as predicted by the Nash equilibrium. They don’t. Cooperation flourishes in prison and this may be due to a number of reasons (parochialism to name one). Inmates cooperated 56% of the time whereas students only 37%.

Khadjavi, M. & Lange, A. (2013) Prisoners and their dilemma. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 92:163–175.

2. Selfish Dictators

The idea that there is a universal willingness to share resources with strangers has been alive since Henrich et al.’s cross-cultural study with Dictator games. A caveat: participants in these games knew that they were participating in an experiment.

In their recent study, Winking and Mizer questioned the external validity of  such Dictator Game experiments. The researchers approached people at bus stops close to casinos in Las Vegas offering them free casino chips that could be exchanged for money. The researchers also made sure they had a believable excuse for why they themselves didn’t need the chips. In one of the conditions the experimenter suggested that the person should share the chips with a stranger (“an unmenacing 35-year old male confederate”). In contrast to results obtained in the traditional experimental setting, NO participants gave ANY chips to the stranger.

This is a bit shocking and flips the currently popular view that humans are cooperative by nature. Or, could it be that the money-oriented location had some effect on these findings? Also, the authors mention that “individuals were excluded if they were visibly intoxicated, mentally unstable or homeless” which tells us a bit about the specific decadent aura of Vegas bus stops.

Winking, J., & Mizer, N. (in press). Natural-field dictator game shows no altruistic giving. Evolution and Human Behavior

Henrich, J. et al. (2004) Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies. Oxford University Press.

3.  A/C martyrs

Having recently visited Florida, I know how important A/C is to Americans. It is very important. Given A/C is something people care so much about in hot US states, using  it as a currency for measuring cooperation is a spot-on choice.

Overexploitation of A/C on particulary hot days causes blackouts, making it a nice example of the tragedy of the commons. Some utility companies provide voluntary schemes through which residents can choose to have their A/C adjusted when there is a blackout danger. Of course such an adjustment prevents them from getting their desired temperature.

Yoeli and colleagues looked at how people subscribe to this scheme under various experimental conditions. In line with other studies on participation in public dilemmas they showed that when participation was non-anonymous it was three times higher than when the subscribers could not be identified by other residents.

Yoeli, E., Hoffman,M., Rand, D. G. & Nowak M. A. (2013) Powering up with indirect reciprocity in a large-scale field experiment PNAS 110:10424-10429