Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Shame and honor drive cooperation

In Biological Letters, an interesting and simple result from Jacquet et. al.:
Can the threat of being shamed or the prospect of being honoured lead to greater cooperation? We test this hypothesis with anonymous six-player public goods experiments, an experimental paradigm used to investigate problems related to overusing common resources. We instructed the players that the two individuals who were least generous after 10 rounds would be exposed to the group. As the natural antithesis, we also test the effects of honour by revealing the identities of the two players who were most generous. The non-monetary, reputational effects induced by shame and honour each led to approximately 50 per cent higher donations to the public good when compared with the control, demonstrating that both shame and honour can drive cooperation and can help alleviate the tragedy of the commons.


  1. Hi,
    this is interesting. Can you please elaborate what the control situation was to which the shame & honor experiment was compared?

  2. Heribert7:48 AM

    It would be interesting to reflect in which way this may apply also to organisations (which finally are lead by humans).
    There might be an argument in favour of free market instead of a top-down regulated system. See the priorpost concerning alternative strategies for healthcare in the US

  3. Mike,

    I think the details are available (open access) through the link to the article provided. But, if not, here is the methods section of the paper:

    We tested our predictions with 180 first-year University of British Columbia science students divided into three treatments, shame, honour and control, consisting of 10 identical six-player games each. To foster indelibility of being shamed and honoured, all six players came from the same class so that the players were acquainted with each other. Players were recruited within the first few weeks of the term to ensure that they would meet again repeatedly during the term.

    There was a single group of six players in the room at a time. Players were partitioned off from each other as well as the experimenters, who stayed out of view for the duration of the actual experiment. Each player received a starting account of CDN$12 and a randomly assigned unique pseudonym (obscure Greek gods). Players were anonymized, both to the experimenters and other players, but players in the honour and shame treatments wrote real names inside an envelope labelled with their pseudonym, which was collected by the experimenter so the two least generous players (or most generous in the honour treatment) could eventually be identified. The box with the concealed names remained visible to all players at all times to protect their anonymity. All six players could see a public screen on which instructions and the game were projected. Before the game, an experimenter read the instructions, and demonstrated the choices and outcomes in example games using pseudonyms not appearing in the experiment.

    Players chose whether to contribute $1 into a public pool or keep it in his/her private funds at each round for 12 rounds. Without visual contact with the player, an experimenter passed a locked box into each cubicle, in which every player placed his/her anonymized envelope (blank on the outside; pseudonym on the inside) containing $0 or $1. Contributions were recorded on the public screen under each player's pseudonym. The group total and player payout were displayed for each round, as was the aggregate total contribution for each player.

    After round 10, the experimenter opened the envelopes labelled with the pseudonyms of the two players who donated least overall in the shame treatments to reveal their real names (in the honour treatment it was the two players who donated most). In the event of a tie, the experimenter chose two players by throwing a six-sided die, with the pseudonyms pre-determinedly linked to each number. Ties occurred in five of the shame games and four of the honour games. Interestingly, ties occurred only for the second least (or most) generous players but never for the least (or most) generous players. In addition, one game in the shame treatment resulted in only one player being exposed because all five other players contributed 100 per cent. The two least generous players went in front of the group and wrote their name on a board under the phrase ‘I donated least’, which was visible for the entire game (for honour, the phrase was ‘I donated most’ and the two most generous players went in front). The real names of these two players were also added to the pseudonyms on the public screen. The remaining four envelopes with the names of the four players that retained their anonymity were visibly destroyed and discarded in front of the group. In the control treatment, all six players remained anonymous. At the end of round 12, each player left with the money he/she kept during the game plus the profits from the public pool. Note that the profits from the public pool were the same for every player and could therefore be distributed without compromising the players' anonymity. The students were asked not to discuss the experiment with anyone else.