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Dissertation abstract: A status theory of collective action


  • Robb Willer



The “collective action problem” describes situations where each person in a group can individually profit more by withholding contributions to group goals. However, if all act in their material self-interest no public good is produced and all are worse off. I present a new solution to the collective action problem based on status. I argue that contributions to collective action increase an individual’s status in the group because contributions create perceptions of high group motivation, defined as the relative value an individual places on group versus individual welfare. Individuals are predicted to receive a variety of social and material benefits for their contributions to the group. These rewards can help explain why individuals contribute to collective action. Four laboratory studies tested the theory. In Study 1, following interaction in a 6-person public goods game, participants reported viewing higher contributors as more group motivated and higher status. Higher contributors also wielded more interpersonal influence in task interactions with participants. Participants also cooperated with higher contributors more, and allocated greater altruism to them in a Dictator game. Study 2 addressed an exchange-theoretic alternative explanation for the findings of Study 1, showing that observers of collective action who did not benefit from higher contributors’ contributions to the public good, nonetheless rated them as higher status, cooperated with them more, and gave them greater altruistic gifts. These results show that collective action contributors can earn social and material benefits even outside the group. Study 3 more directly tested the mediating role of group motivation. Contributors who sacrificed a greater proportion of resources for the collective action were rated as more group motivated and higher status than a moderate proportional contributor, even though the amounts they contributed were the same. These findings support the theory, and underscore the significance of self-sacrifice in the acquisition of status in collective action. Study 4 investigated the effects of status rewards on contributors’ behavior towards and perceptions of the group. Participants who received positive status feedback for their contributions subsequently contributed more than those who did not. Rewarded participants also identified more with the group and saw it as having greater solidarity and cohesion. I conclude by discussing theoretical implications and future research. Copyright Economic Science Association 2007

Suggested Citation

  • Robb Willer, 2007. "Dissertation abstract: A status theory of collective action," Experimental Economics, Springer;Economic Science Association, vol. 10(2), pages 189-190, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:kap:expeco:v:10:y:2007:i:2:p:189-190
    DOI: 10.1007/s10683-006-9150-0

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. James Andreoni & Lise Vesterlund, 2001. "Which is the Fair Sex? Gender Differences in Altruism," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 116(1), pages 293-312.
    2. James Andreoni, 2001. "Giving According to GARP," Theory workshop papers 339, UCLA Department of Economics.
    3. Clotfelter, Charles T, 1980. "Tax Incentives and Charitable Giving: Evidence from a Panel of Taxpayers," Empirical Economics, Springer, vol. 13(3), pages 319-340, June.
    4. Eckel, Catherine C. & Grossman, Philip J., 1996. "Altruism in Anonymous Dictator Games," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 16(2), pages 181-191, October.
    5. Clotfelter, Charles T., 1980. "Tax incentives and charitable giving: evidence from a panel of taxpayers," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 13(3), pages 319-340, June.
    6. Eckel, Catherine C. & Grossman, Philip J., 2003. "Rebate versus matching: does how we subsidize charitable contributions matter?," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 87(3-4), pages 681-701, March.
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