Uncertain expectations beget stinginess and selfishness
The less we know about what is expected of us in a given situation, the more likely we are to act upon self-interest alone. According to the UCPH researcher behind the new study, this applies both to our degree of financial generosity, as well as to the extent to which we adhere to coronavirus guidelines.
When you don’t know how much to tip, do you round up or down? If you're like most people, you'll round downwards. Uncertainty about what is expected of us generally results in our becoming more selfish and stingy.
This is the conclusion in the preliminary results of a 2020 study conducted by researchers at the University of Copenhagen and Sweden’s Lund University.
The researchers conducted what are known as 'behavioral economics experiments' on 268 Danish participants. In the first part of the experiment, participants were grouped into pairs, with a person A and person B. Person A received 100 Danish kronor to share, at their own discretion, with person B. Both subjects were informed that the norm was to provide their partner with half of the total amount.
"What we observed is that when there is a clear expectation of what to do in a given situation, people comply with the norm and give half of the money to their partner. Specifically, 30 percent of the participants opted for this solution," explains Toke Fosgaard, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food and Resource Economics, and one of the researchers behind the study.
In the second part of the experiment, with the same subjects, the researchers sowed uncertainty about the norm by telling person A, who had received the 100 kroner, that they could reduce or add to the amount given to person B. They also informed person A that person B wouldn’t be told anything about what had been subtracted from or added to the total. The result was that the vast majority opted to share less than half of the total amount with person B.
"This suggests that as uncertainty of expectations arises, we are more likely to keep as much as possible for ourselves and be stingy rather than generous," says Toke Fosgaard.
Uncertainty causes us to slack off on COVID rules
Knowledge about how we act, depending upon whether we are clear about or uncertain of norms, is relevant in a variety of contexts. This is because our expectations of norms characterize every facet of our lives, including the ways in which we raise children, behave at work, etc. As such, the associate professor believes the study’s outcome can be extended to the coronavirus pandemic as well:
"If accounting for and following the trends observed in our study, one should be very clear when explaining to others how they ought to behave in response to the coronavirus pandemic. If people are uncertain about which guidelines apply, most will opt to do as they please," he says, adding:
"The findings are primarily relevant for instances in which an individual is alone – that is, removed from the judgmental eyes of others. For example, one might skip an extra hand wash at home, relax with the cleaning or host many different groups of friends."
The study’s results could also be applicable with regards to the use of face masks, where there seems to be a degree of uncertainty about how often they ought to be changed.
"If a person is uncertain about how long a face mask may be worn, I would expect — based upon our results — that many would be tempted to extend usage, and thereby delay the purchase of new masks," explains Toke Fosgaard.
Why this is so, is "pure speculation" to Fosgaard. However, he underscores that there is no shortage of research concerning the brain's reward system to indicate that we are fundamentally quite selfish and tend to do whatever best suits our own needs.
Our generosity increases when others are watching
The study concludes that our actions are markedly different while being observed by others.
In the third part of the experiment, the researchers repeated both experiments, but with a twist. In this part, person A's choice to give money to person B was posted on Facebook.
"Our results demonstrate that as soon as there are 'spectators aboard', we generally become both more generous and compliant. It has to do with social control — we want to present our best side to others," explains Fosgaard. He concludes:
"That's also why, according to our results, we are better at wearing gloves and disinfecting our hands in a supermarket full of shoppers, as opposed to in an empty one. Because when we're alone, we most likely do as we please."
Facts about the study
- The study is a working paper published at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food and Resource Economics in 2020. It has not yet been published in a scientific journal.