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Frey, B. S., Meier, S. (2004). Social Comparisons and Pro-social Behavior: Testing "Conditional Cooperation" in a Field Experiment. The American Economic Review 94 (5), 1717-1722

Many important activities, such as charitable giving, voting, and paying taxes, are difficult to explain by the narrow self-interest hypothesis. In a large number of laboratory experiments, the self-interest hypothesis was rejected with respect to contributions to public goods (e.g., John O. Ledyard, 1995). Recent theories on pro-social behavior focus on “conditional cooperation”: people are assumed to be more willing to contribute when others contribute. This behavior may be due to various motivational reasons, such as conformity, social norms, or reciprocity. According to the theory of conditional cooperation, higher contribution rates are observed when information is provided that many others contribute. This prediction is not trivial: if people behave according to pure altruism theories (e.g., Charles Clotfelter, 1997), they reduce their own contribution when informed that others are already contributing. Testing for social comparison in the field encounters many difficulties (e.g., Charles Manski, 2000). For example, a positive correlation between expectations about the mean behavior of the reference group and one’s own behavior is consistent with conditional cooperation, but not conclusive, as causality is not clear. 

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Frey, Bruno S.

Bruno S. Frey is Full Professor of Economics at the University of Zurich, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Science at the Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick, UK, and Research Director of CREMA - Centre for Research in Economics, Management and the Arts, Switzerland. He is...

Meier, Stephan

Stephan Meier is an Assistant Professor at Columbia Business School and a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision-Making at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Zurich, was previously a senior economist at the Boston Fed...

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