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The volunteer’s dilemma explains the bystander effect

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  • Campos-Mercade, Pol

Abstract

The bystander effect is the phenomenon that people are less likely to help others when they are in a group than when they are alone. The theoretical literature typically explains the bystander effect with the volunteer’s dilemma: if providing help is equivalent to creating a public good, then bystanders could be less likely to help in groups because they free ride on the other bystanders. This paper uses a dynamic game to experimentally test such strategic interactions as an explanation for the bystander effect. In line with the predictions of the volunteer’s dilemma, I find that bystanders help immediately when they are alone but help later and are less likely to help if they are part of a larger group. In contrast to the model’s predictions, subjects in need of help are helped earlier and are more likely to be helped in larger groups. This finding can be accounted for in an extended model that includes both altruistic and selfish bystanders. The paper concludes that the volunteer’s dilemma is a sensible way to model situations in which someone is in need of help, but it highlights the need to take heterogeneous social preferences into account.

Suggested Citation

  • Campos-Mercade, Pol, 2021. "The volunteer’s dilemma explains the bystander effect," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 186(C), pages 646-661.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jeborg:v:186:y:2021:i:c:p:646-661
    DOI: 10.1016/j.jebo.2020.11.012
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    Cited by:

    1. Pol Campos-Mercade, 2020. "When are groups less moral than individuals?," CEBI working paper series 20-26, University of Copenhagen. Department of Economics. The Center for Economic Behavior and Inequality (CEBI).
    2. Gans, Joshua S. & Landry, Peter, 2022. "I’m not sure what to think about them: Confronting naive present bias in a dynamic threshold public goods game," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 197(C), pages 195-204.
    3. Ayse Gül Mermer & Sander Onderstal & Joep Sonnemans, "undated". "Can Communication Mitigate Strategic Delays in Investment Timing?," Tinbergen Institute Discussion Papers 23-033/I, Tinbergen Institute.
    4. Yixuan Shi, 2022. "Dynamic Volunteer’s Dilemma with Procrastinators," Working Papers tax-mpg-rps-2022-17, Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance.
    5. Campos-Mercade, Pol, 2022. "When are groups less moral than individuals?," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 134(C), pages 20-36.
    6. Hillenbrand, Adrian & Werner, Tobias & Winter, Fabian, 2022. "Willingness to volunteer among remote workers is insensitive to the team size," ZEW Discussion Papers 22-050, ZEW - Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research.

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    More about this item

    Keywords

    Volunteer’s dilemma; Bystander effect; Helping behavior; Group size; Altruism;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • C92 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Group Behavior
    • D64 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Altruism; Philanthropy; Intergenerational Transfers
    • D90 - Microeconomics - - Micro-Based Behavioral Economics - - - General

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