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Saving face and group identity

Abstract

Are people willing to sacrifice resources to save one’s and others’ face? In a laboratory experiment, we study whether individuals forego resources to avoid the public exposure of the least performer in their group. We show that a majority of individuals are willing to pay to preserve not only their self- but also other group members’ image, even when group identity is minimal. When group identity is made more salient, individuals help regardless of whether the least performer is an in-group or an out-group. In contrast, people are less likely to sacrifice for individual strangers, showing a major role for group identity and reputation concerns within groups relative to an interpretation in terms of moral norms.

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Notes

  1. Many firms struggle to find a well-functioning performance evaluation system. Recently, well-known companies have abolished their annual performance review (Adobe) or moved from a rigid, forced ranking approach to systems that are more flexible (Microsoft, Yahoo). One aspect that is not recognized in the literature is the loss of face (self- as well as others’ image) associated with performance evaluations in which individuals’ ranks are publicly exposed.

  2. An exception is Hugh-Jones and Reinstein (2010) who study loss of face as the disutility for common-knowledge of rejection. The fear of losing face leads to inefficiencies in markets because it leads to fewer offers.

  3. Face is a key dimension in the Confucian culture to orchestrate social interactions (Hu 1944; Redding and Ng 1982; Yang 1989; Qi 2011). The concern of Chinese for face results from a socialization process using shaming techniques to inculcate strong sensitivity to group belonging and others’ opinion (Redding and Ng 1982). The concern for others’ image is called “giving face” in Chinese.

  4. We kept the procedure as soft as possible to avoid creating too much embarrassment. In psychology, Smith et al. (2002) have shown that shame has two core features: its links with public exposure and with negative self-evaluation.

  5. There is also a literature on the willingness-to-pay for privacy, showing that people are less willing to disclose personal information when information is more sensitive (Feri et al. 2013), or in the absence of economic advantage associated with disclosure (Beresford et al. 2012). While we are also concerned with the privacy of sensitive data, we differ from this literature in which disclosure is voluntary.

  6. This is not systematic, however, as the impact of group identity on behavior is conditional on the saliency of identity (Eckel and Grossman 2005), the procedure used to generate identity (Guala et al. 2013), the group size (Harris et al. 2009), the mode of group formation (Herbst et al. 2012), the existence of inter-group conflicts (Chakravarty and Fonseca 2011), and culture (Buchan et al. 2006).

  7. By means of a trust game, Galeotti and Zizzo (2014) analyze the impact of singling-out individuals depending on whether it is random or it results from people’s preferences. Singling-out individuals reduces trustworthiness and majority group members discriminate against singled-out subjects.

  8. Using a task in which a low performance would signal low cognitive ability would have generated more embarrassment in case of exposure, which we wanted to avoid for ethical reasons. Thus, the intensity of shame due to public exposure in a professional or educational environment is probably underestimated in our experiment.

  9. This raises a coordination issue in the group that will be studied later. To avoid this coordination problem, an alternative design could have been to randomly choose one of the triad members’ decisions to determine the exposure of the least performer. However, uncertainty of implementation would have limited the feeling of responsibility and probably reduced the willingness to pay for avoiding exposure.

  10. We acknowledge that the impact of exposure on image cannot be disentangled precisely from that of lifting anonymity or the displeasure to stand in front of the public. But if the decision to sacrifice was motivated by the lift of anonymity or the displeasure of exposure and not because of image concerns, then it should be independent of the rank of the exposed player. We will show later that this is not what we observe, thanks to an additional treatment similar to the Baseline, except that it is the best performer who is publicly exposed unless at least one player pays to avoid exposure (N = 36).

  11. That is at the beginning of the session, after receiving feedback at the end of part 1, at the end of part 2, during part 3 after choosing to pay to avoid public exposure, after the exposure stage, and at the end of part 4.

  12. Note that, as far as we know, we are the first to use these Klee-Kandinsky labels in China.

  13. To check whether the group inducement mechanism was effective, subjects had to report their feeling intensity of belonging to their group, with 1 referring to no feeling of group membership at all and 7 referring to a very strong feeling of group membership. The average reported number is 5.03, which indicates that the mechanism worked.

  14. This is confirmed by the players’ reports of their reasons for their decisions in the post-experimental survey. A majority responded that they chose to pay to avoid the least performers’ losing face or feeling embarrassed.

  15. An alternative explanation is that the best and the medium performers’ decision to pay is driven by potential shame if choosing not to pay since their decision is visible to the other triad members. However, the emotional data do not support this explanation: there is no significant difference in shame and happiness intensity between the best and the medium performers who chose to pay and those who made the opposite choice.

  16. Note that this is different from Chen and Chen (2011) who found that subjects asking more questions to their in-groups during the problem-solving task were more (less) cooperative with their in-(out-)groups in the main game.

  17. The analysis of beliefs indicates, however, that the individuals are more pessimistic about others’ willingness to pay the fee when they are matched with out-groups rather than with in-groups. The mean beliefs about the number of other triad members choosing to pay the fee are 1.36 (SD = 0.68) in the Minimal Identity treatment, 1.42 (SD = 0.73) in the Homogenous treatment, 1.11 (SD = 0.74) in the Heterogeneous treatment, and 1.22 (SD = 0.75) in the No Identity treatment. Beliefs differ significantly between the Heterogeneous treatment on the one hand and the Minimal Identity treatment (p = 0.096) and the Homogenous treatment (p = 0.010) on the other hand (Mann–Whitney tests with each participant taken as one independent observation). They do not differ between the No Identity treatment and the other treatments (p > 0.100).

  18. The mean beliefs of the least performers are 1.08 (SD = 0.67) in the Minimal Identity treatment, 1.25 (SD = 0.79) in the Homogenous treatment, 0.87 (SD = 0.74) in the Heterogeneous treatment, and 0.83 (SD = 0.76) in the No Identity treatment. They are significantly more pessimistic than others in the Minimal Identity treatment (p = 0.070), Heterogeneous (p = 0.057) and No Identity treatments (p = 0.002) (Mann–Whitney tests), not in the Homogeneous treatment (p = 0.185).

  19. This last variable replaces the separate belief variables included in the previous models because there is not enough variation in the decision to pay the fee when the subjects believe that the two other members will pay. 52.78% of subjects with rank 1 or 2 are willing to pay in the condition where we do not elicit beliefs, 25% when they believe that none of the two others will pay, 33.33% when they believe that one will pay but 100% when they believe that the two others will pay.

  20. In other regressions not reported here but available upon request, we also controlled for the difference in scores between the player and the least performer in the triad. The coefficient of this variable is never significant. Helping to save face is not conditional on differences in effort.

  21. There is indeed a relative stability in ranks across parts. 63% of the best performers in part 3 received already rank 1 in part 1, 74% received rank 1 both in part 2 and in part 4. 65% of the least performers in part 3 received already rank 3 in part 1, 76% in part 2, and 74% in part 4.

  22. These two dummy variables take value 0 in the No Feedback treatment. We do not include the intensity of shame and happiness feelings in part 3 because they are not random variables and would create an endogeneity issue. We also tested models (2) and (3) after including a dummy variable indicating whether the exposed individual belongs to the minority in the Heterogeneous treatment. This variable was not significant. Therefore, we do not report these additional regressions.

  23. We thank an anonymous reviewer for these suggestions.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to an associate editor and two reviewers, and to participants at the EALE-SOLE World Congress in Montreal, the Economic Science Association in New-York, the 3rd Annual Xiamen University International Workshop on Experimental Economics, the ASFEE conference in Montpellier, the workshop on Cooperation, cultural aspects and norms in Jerusalem, and seminar participants at GATE for valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper. We also address special thanks to F. Galeotti and D. Houser for very useful comments. We thank S. Ferriol, R. Cautain and Q. Thévenet for programming this experiment and T. He and Y. Chen for excellent research assistance. This research program has been supported by a Grant from the French National Research Agency (ANR, EMCO program, HEIDI Grant) and was performed within the framework of the LABEX CORTEX (ANR-11-LABX-0042) of Université de Lyon, within the program “Investissements d’Avenir” (ANR-11-IDEX-007) operated by the French National Research Agency (ANR).

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Correspondence to Marie Claire Villeval.

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Eriksson, T., Mao, L. & Villeval, M.C. Saving face and group identity. Exp Econ 20, 622–647 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10683-016-9502-3

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Keywords

  • Saving face
  • Social image
  • Pro-social behavior
  • Group identity
  • Experiment

JEL Classification

  • C92
  • D03
  • M52
  • Z13