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Can priming cooperation increase public good contributions?


We investigate the effect of priming on pro-social behaviour in a setting where there is a clear financial incentive to free ride. By activating the concept of cooperation among randomly selected individuals, we explore whether it is possible to positively influence people’s voluntary contributions to the public good. Our findings indicate that cooperative priming increases contributions in a one-shot public goods game from approximately 25–36 % compared with the non-primed group. The results call for further explorations of the role of priming in economic behaviours in general.

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  1. For a conceptual discussion and classification of framing effects, see Levin et al. (1998).

  2. It is important to note that our priming intervention can be criticized as being potentially an experimenter demand effect (Zizzo 2010). To control for this possibility, in a post-experimental questionnaire we asked subjects to indicate whether they think their decisions in our experiment were affected by our priming task. We discuss how we controlled econometrically for such an effect in Sect. 3.

  3. We include the \(16\times 16\) matrix of the actual word-search puzzle used in the experiment in online Appendix B in supplementary material.

  4. In each treatment, subjects were asked at the end of the game to indicate the intensity of emotions they felt about the actual contribution behaviour of each member of their group. The procedure we used to elicit self-reports on perceived emotions is due to Bosman and Winden (2002). In particular, subjects were given a list of thirteen emotions, and were then asked to indicate the intensity with which they felt each emotion when they saw the contribution of each other group member. The intensity for each emotion was recorded on a 7-point scale (1 \(=\) “not at all”, ..., 7 \(=\) “very much”). In order to exclude potential income effects, which may confound the elicitation of emotions, elicitation of beliefs was not incentivized. However, since our primary focus is on how priming affects pro-social behaviours in a public good game, we have decided not to use data from the emotions’ elicitation in the paper.

  5. The variable “Other nationalities” is equal to 1 for those subjects who reported their nationality as being outside the UK and the EU, and 0 otherwise.

  6. The differences in the conditional marginal effects of priming on beliefs about other people’s contributions are also statistically insignificant across different personal characteristics; see online Appendix D in supplementary material.

  7. In a post-experimental questionnaire we asked subjects the following question: “Do you think the first experiment has affected your decisions in the second experiment?”. This would allow us to control for potential experimenter demand effects that might emerge from the use of our priming intervention. None of the subjects in the non-priming treatment and 16 out of 75 subjects in the priming treatment answered this question positively. When we include a dummy variable controlling for those who reported that the priming task affected their subsequent behaviour, the estimated coefficient on the variable “Priming” remains statistically significant for the regressions of contributions (Models 1, 2 and 3) and statistically insignificant for the regressions of beliefs about others’ contributions (Models 4, 5 and 6). Notice that the coefficient of the variable (“Understanding the experiment”) capturing whether subjects’ behaviour had been affected by our priming task is insignificant in all our econometric models. We report our regression models in Appendix E in supplementary material.


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We would like to thank Arno Riedl, two anonymous reviewers, Vincent Crawford, Rachel Croson, Paul Dolan, John Hey, Andrew Oswald and Ivo Vlaev for their comments. Financial support from the University of York is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Nattavudh Powdthavee.

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Drouvelis, M., Metcalfe, R. & Powdthavee, N. Can priming cooperation increase public good contributions?. Theory Decis 79, 479–492 (2015).

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  • Priming
  • Free riding
  • Public goods experiments