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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
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:cdl:ucsbec:qt4xs9d0nz
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  1. Ernst Fehr & Simon G�chter, 2000. "Fairness and Retaliation: The Economics of Reciprocity," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 14(3), pages 159-181, Summer.
  2. M. Rabin, 2001. "Incorporating Fairness into Game Theory and Economics," Levine's Working Paper Archive 511, David K. Levine.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Dufwenberg, M. & Kirchsteiger, G., 1998. "A Theory of Sequential Reciprocity," Discussion Paper 1998-37, Tilburg University, Center for Economic Research.
  6. Charness, Gary B & Rabin, Matthew, 2001. "Understanding Social Preferences With Simple Tests," University of California at Santa Barbara, Economics Working Paper Series qt0dc3k4m5, Department of Economics, UC Santa Barbara.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. Gary E. Bolton & Jordi Brandts & Elena Katok, 2000. "How strategy sensitive are contributions?," Economic Theory, Springer, vol. 15(2), pages 367-387.
  14. Offerman, Theo, 2002. "Hurting hurts more than helping helps," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 46(8), pages 1423-1437, September.
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