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The Road to Hell: An Experimental Study of Intentions

  • Charness, Gary
  • Levine, David I.

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.

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Paper provided by Department of Economics, UC Santa Barbara in its series University of California at Santa Barbara, Economics Working Paper Series with number qt4xs9d0nz.

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Date of creation: 05 Aug 2003
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Handle: RePEc:cdl:ucsbec:qt4xs9d0nz
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  1. Ernst Fehr & Simon Gaechter, 2000. "Fairness and Retaliation: The Economics of Reciprocity," CESifo Working Paper Series 336, CESifo Group Munich.
  2. Charness, Gary & Rabin, Matthew, 2002. "Understanding Social Preferences with Simple Tests," Department of Economics, Working Paper Series qt3d04q5sm, Department of Economics, Institute for Business and Economic Research, UC Berkeley.
  3. Charness, Gary B & Grosskopf, Brit, 2000. "Relative Payoffs And Happiness: An Experimental Study," University of California at Santa Barbara, Economics Working Paper Series qt8389x8z2, Department of Economics, UC Santa Barbara.
  4. Sendhil Mullainathan & Marianne Bertrand, 1998. "Is there Discretion in Wage Setting? A Test Using Takeover Legislation," Working papers 98-19, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
  5. 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 143-70, May.
  6. Gary Bolton & Jordi Brandts & Axel Ockenfels, 1998. "Measuring Motivations for the Reciprocal Responses Observed in a Simple Dilemma Game," Experimental Economics, Springer, vol. 1(3), pages 207-219, December.
  7. Georg Kirchsteiger & Martin Dufwenberg, 2004. "A theory of sequential reciprocity," ULB Institutional Repository 2013/5899, ULB -- Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
  8. James Andreoni & John Miller, 2002. "Giving According to GARP: An Experimental Test of the Consistency of Preferences for Altruism," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 70(2), pages 737-753, March.
  9. Gary E. Bolton & Jordi Brandts & Elena Katok, 2000. "How strategy sensitive are contributions?," Economic Theory, Springer, vol. 15(2), pages 367-387.
  10. 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.
  11. Offerman, Theo, 2002. "Hurting hurts more than helping helps," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 46(8), pages 1423-1437, September.
  12. 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.
  13. Rabin, Matthew, 1993. "Incorporating Fairness into Game Theory and Economics," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 83(5), pages 1281-1302, December.
  14. 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 728-41, September.
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