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Viral altruism? A natural field experiment of social contagion in on-line networks


  • Nicola Lacetera

    () (Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto)

  • Mario Macis

    () (Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University)

  • Angelo Mele

    () (Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University)


We present preliminary results from a small-scale natural field experiment aimed at exploring online social contagion, with an application to charitable giving. We worked in partnership with Heifer International, a non-profit organization aimed at fighting poverty in developing countries, and HelpAttack!, the developer of a Facebook application that facilitates donations to charities while broadcasting such activities to the donors’ Facebook contacts. We ran a series of marketing campaigns, and randomized the broadcasting of users’ pledges, thereby creating exogenous variation in the information that users’ contacts were receiving. Although our campaigns reached as many as about 13 million Facebook users, 6,000 users clicked on the ad and only 18 pledges were made, without any subsequent pledge from these users’ contacts. We offer potential explanations for this finding on the absence of network effects, and outline our plans for future developments of this on-going project.

Suggested Citation

  • Nicola Lacetera & Mario Macis & Angelo Mele, 2012. "Viral altruism? A natural field experiment of social contagion in on-line networks," Working Papers 12-16, NET Institute.
  • Handle: RePEc:net:wpaper:1216

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Stefano DellaVigna & John A. List & Ulrike Malmendier, 2012. "Testing for Altruism and Social Pressure in Charitable Giving," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 127(1), pages 1-56.
    2. repec:feb:artefa:0106 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Jean Tirole & Roland Bénabou, 2006. "Incentives and Prosocial Behavior," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 96(5), pages 1652-1678, December.
    4. Glenn W. Harrison & John A. List, 2004. "Field Experiments," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 42(4), pages 1009-1055, December.
    5. Dean Karlan & John A. List, 2007. "Does Price Matter in Charitable Giving? Evidence from a Large-Scale Natural Field Experiment," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 97(5), pages 1774-1793, December.
    6. Banerjee, Abhijit & Chandrasekhar, Arun G & Duflo, Esther & Jackson, Matthew O., 2012. "The Diffusion of Microfinance," CEPR Discussion Papers 8770, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    7. Lacetera, Nicola & Macis, Mario, 2008. "Social Image Concerns and Pro-Social Behavior," IZA Discussion Papers 3771, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    8. John List, 2008. "Informed consent in social science," Artefactual Field Experiments 00086, The Field Experiments Website.
    9. Avi Goldfarb & Catherine Tucker, 2012. "Shifts in Privacy Concerns," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 102(3), pages 349-353, May.
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    Blog mentions

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    1. Altruism
      by UDADISI in UDADISI on 2012-10-23 15:45:00

    More about this item


    Online networks; diffusion; pro-social behavior; network effects;

    JEL classification:

    • C93 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Field Experiments
    • D64 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Altruism; Philanthropy; Intergenerational Transfers
    • O33 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Innovation; Research and Development; Technological Change; Intellectual Property Rights - - - Technological Change: Choices and Consequences; Diffusion Processes
    • M31 - Business Administration and Business Economics; Marketing; Accounting; Personnel Economics - - Marketing and Advertising - - - Marketing

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