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When a Nudge Backfires:Using Observation with Social and Economic Incentives to Promote Pro-Social Behavior

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  • Gary Bolton

    (University of Texas at Dallas)

  • Eugen Dimant

    (University of Pennsylvania)

  • Ulrich Schmidt

    (Kiel Institute for the World Economy)

Abstract

Both theory and recent empirical evidence on nudging suggest that observability of behavior acts as an instrument for promoting (discouraging) pro-social (anti-social) behavior. Our study questions the universality of these claims. We employ a novel four-party setup to disentangle the roles that the relevant observational mechanisms play in affecting pro-/antisocial behavior. We systematically vary the observability of one's actions by others as well as the (non-)monetary relationship between observer and observee. Observability involving economic incentives crowds-out anti-social behavior in favor of more pro-social behavior. Surprisingly, observation without economic consequences fails to achieve any aggregate pro-social effect, and if anything it backfires. In additional experiments we confirm that this backfiring effect is driven by inequity concerns. We propose and successfully test a solution: increasing the focus on the underlying social norms.

Suggested Citation

  • Gary Bolton & Eugen Dimant & Ulrich Schmidt, 2019. "When a Nudge Backfires:Using Observation with Social and Economic Incentives to Promote Pro-Social Behavior," Discussion Papers 2019-03, The Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics, School of Economics, University of Nottingham.
  • Handle: RePEc:not:notcdx:2019-03
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    Cited by:

    1. Schwartz, Daniel & Keenan, Elizabeth A. & Imas, Alex & Gneezy, Ayelet, 2021. "Opting-in to prosocial incentives," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 163(C), pages 132-141.
    2. Dimant, Eugen, 2019. "Contagion of pro- and anti-social behavior among peers and the role of social proximity," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 73(C), pages 66-88.

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    More about this item

    Keywords

    Anti-Social Behavior; Experiment; Nudge; Pro-Social Behavior; Reputation;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • C91 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Individual Behavior
    • D64 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Altruism; Philanthropy; Intergenerational Transfers
    • D9 - Microeconomics - - Micro-Based Behavioral Economics

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