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Norms, cognitive dissonance, and cooperative behaviour in laboratory experiments

  • Philipp C. Wichardt

Purpose – The paper emphasises the general relevance of social norms and social associations for cooperative behaviour in less or non-social economic contexts, focusing in particular on economic laboratory experiments, and to illustrate the underlying psychological driving forces. Design/methodology/approach – The argument focuses on the interplay between social norms, their psychological enforcement mechanism (cognitive dissonance) and context effects. Drawing on findings from both (social) psychology and experimental economics, it emphasises the relevance of social norms for cooperative behaviour also in less or non-social environments as often created in economic laboratory experiments. Moreover, the conditions for cognitive dissonance effects to occur are summarised and the corresponding behavioural effects are both highlighted and exemplified by means of various examples including the analysis of a specific data set. Findings – The discussion strongly suggests that the influence of common cooperative social norms is difficult to “anonymise away” in laboratory experiments or other less socially focused decision environments. Moreover, it provides a possible explanation for the occurrence of a variety of behavioural patterns often found in such settings, such as initially high but decreasing willingness to cooperate in social dilemmas. Practical implications – Emphasising the far reach of social aspects in economic decision making, the discussion may help in the design of institutions as it illustrates a widespread source of non-economic individual incentives. Originality/value – The argument addresses the idiosyncrasies of individual cooperative behaviour in situations where economic incentives should hinder such behaviour. Adding to earlier arguments which explain such cooperation, for example, by reference to fairness concerns or inequity aversion, the present discussion emphasises in particular the specific psychological driving forces behind such behaviour. In doing so, it establishes a clear link to the research on cognitive dissonance in psychology.

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Article provided by Emerald Group Publishing in its journal International Journal of Social Economics.

Volume (Year): 39 (2012)
Issue (Month): 5 (May)
Pages: 342-356

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Handle: RePEc:eme:ijsepp:v:39:y:2012:i:5:p:342-356
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