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The Road to Hell: An Experimental Study of Intentions

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  • Charness, Gary
  • Levine, David I.

Abstract

Do people care about intentions? Good intentions often do not produce good results when a person tries to do something nice for someone else. In this paper, we ask under what circumstances do people pay attention to outcomes and under what circumstances do they focus on intentions. While the aphorism in the paper’s title suggests that outcomes play a larger role than intentions, our study questions this assumption. Some previous studies in economics suggest that the process determining an outcome affects responses to that outcome. Our experimental design improves upon previous methodology by introducing an element of chance in the wage-determination process in an experimental labor market. Using this device, we find that both intentions and outcomes matter; rates of punishment and reward are sensitive to both the wage a firm decides to pay and the (higher or lower) wage actually received after chance intervenes. We feature a specific comparison, in which workers receive identical wages either (1) after a high wage assignment and bad luck, or (2) after a low wage assignment and good luck. Despite identical wages and identical relative payoffs, workers’ responses differ greatly across these contingencies. Our data strongly support the role of intentions, with negative reciprocity overwhelming distributional considerations given low wages.

Suggested Citation

  • Charness, Gary & Levine, David I., 2003. "The Road to Hell: An Experimental Study of Intentions," University of California at Santa Barbara, Economics Working Paper Series qt4xs9d0nz, Department of Economics, UC Santa Barbara.
  • Handle: RePEc:cdl:ucsbec:qt4xs9d0nz
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Ernst Fehr & Simon Gächter, 2000. "Fairness and Retaliation: The Economics of Reciprocity," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 14(3), pages 159-181, Summer.
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    3. Brandts, Jordi & Sola, Carles, 2001. "Reference Points and Negative Reciprocity in Simple Sequential Games," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 36(2), pages 138-157, August.
    4. Blount, Sally, 1995. "When Social Outcomes Aren't Fair: The Effect of Causal Attributions on Preferences," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 63(2), pages 131-144, August.
    5. Marianne Bertrand & Sendhil Mullainathan, 1999. "Is There a Discretion in Wage Setting? A Test Using Takeover Legislation," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 30(3), pages 535-554, Autumn.
    6. Dufwenberg, Martin & Kirchsteiger, Georg, 2004. "A theory of sequential reciprocity," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 47(2), pages 268-298, May.
    7. Charness, Gary & Grosskopf, Brit, 2001. "Relative payoffs and happiness: an experimental study," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 45(3), pages 301-328, July.
    8. Blanchflower, David G & Oswald, Andrew J & Garrett, Mario D, 1990. "Insider Power in Wage Determination," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 57(226), pages 143-170, May.
    9. Gary Bolton & Jordi Brandts & Axel Ockenfels, 1998. "Measuring Motivations for the Reciprocal Responses Observed in a Simple Dilemma Game," Experimental Economics, Springer;Economic Science Association, vol. 1(3), pages 207-219, December.
    10. Gary E. Bolton & Jordi Brandts & Elena Katok, 2000. "How strategy sensitive are contributions?," Economic Theory, Springer;Society for the Advancement of Economic Theory (SAET), vol. 15(2), pages 367-387.
    11. Rabin, Matthew, 1993. "Incorporating Fairness into Game Theory and Economics," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 83(5), pages 1281-1302, December.
    12. Offerman, Theo, 2002. "Hurting hurts more than helping helps," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 46(8), pages 1423-1437, September.
    13. Kahneman, Daniel & Knetsch, Jack L & Thaler, Richard, 1986. "Fairness as a Constraint on Profit Seeking: Entitlements in the Market," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 76(4), pages 728-741, September.
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    Citations

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    Cited by:

    1. Sutter, Matthias, 2007. "Outcomes versus intentions: On the nature of fair behavior and its development with age," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 28(1), pages 69-78, January.
    2. Gerald Eisenkopf & Urs Fischbacher, 2015. "Naïve Responses to Kind Delegation," Managerial and Decision Economics, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 36(7), pages 487-498, October.
    3. Houser, Daniel & Xiao, Erte & McCabe, Kevin & Smith, Vernon, 2008. "When punishment fails: Research on sanctions, intentions and non-cooperation," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 62(2), pages 509-532, March.
    4. Magnus Hoffmann & Martin Kolmar, 2013. "Distributional Preferences in Probabilistic and Share Contests," CESifo Working Paper Series 4184, CESifo Group Munich.
    5. Ohana, Marc, 2009. "La réciprocité sur le marché du travail : les limites du laboratoire," L'Actualité Economique, Société Canadienne de Science Economique, vol. 85(2), pages 239-256, juin.

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