Empathy and socially responsible consumption: an experiment with the vote-with-the-wallet game

Abstract

We study by means of a laboratory experiment the role of individuals’ empathy in the Vote-with-the-Wallet Game. Our main purpose is to analyze the impact of the ability to empathize on participants’ behavior when asked to choose between two specific types of product: a cheaper conventional good and a more expensive one which, however, produces a positive externality for the other participants. We consider three manipulations: a) a redistribution mechanism where the expensive product is subsidized by the buyers of the cheaper one; b) a framed version of the game where the expensive good is described as produced by a socially responsible company; c) a treatment where information about other participants’ behavior are made public. We find that all the manipulations increase the rate of contribution to the public good with respect to the baseline treatment and that the effects are stronger among participants who show higher levels of empathy.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Notes

  1. 1.

    The main goal of the original experiment was to verify the impact of a new legislation introduced by the Italian Competition Authority on consumers’ behavior. In particular the experiment investigated the willingness to buy goods from firms with a legality rating, that is firms that can demonstrate to have implemented organizational practices, procedures and behavioral schemes to fight against corruption. The study also describes the effect of conformism and tax transfers on participants’ willingness to spend more to buy the goods produced by the certified firms. The same data have been used in Becchetti et al. (2019), to estimate players’ preferences by comparing results from a satisfaction-based and a choice-based approach. We analyze the same data focusing on the impact of the individuals’ empathic concerns on the same behavioral outcomes. The VWG has recently been at the center of a certain number of theoretical and experimental contributions: see, for example Becchetti et al. 2016, 2018a, b, 2019; Becchetti and Salustri 2019).

  2. 2.

    This assumption finds strong grounds in results from the experimental literature providing ample evidence of distribution and intention-based other regarding preferences such as of (positive and negative) reciprocity (Rabin 1993), inequity aversion (Fehr and Schmidt 1999, and Bolton and Ockenfels 2000), other-regarding preferences (Cox 2004), social welfare preferences (Charness and Rabin 2002), betrayal aversion (Bohnet and Zeckhauser 2004), and various forms of pure and impure (warm glow) altruism (Andreoni 1989, 1990).

  3. 3.

    In this sense when looking at how we model the choice of the legality rated company, our model fits the Besley and Ghatak’s (2007) definition of corporate social responsibility as the stance of companies who “retail public goods”.

  4. 4.

    In other words, this implies that only players without income constraints can participate in the game.

  5. 5.

    See "Appendix 2" for full instruction details.

  6. 6.

    We follow Alekseev, Charness and Gneezy (2017) who suggest that rich-context loaded instructions can be used as “an additional arrow in the experimenter’s quiver” (p. 49), in particular to affect the social component of games, as perceived by participants. “In such settings as pollution, bribery, or financial decision-making, the use of abstract terms may eliminate important social considerations that are inherent to them in naturally-occurring situations. The games, which model these scenarios but do not use their language, may yield results that have low external validity” (p. 53). Se also Cason and Leigh (2011), Pevnitskaya and Ryvkin, (2013) and Banerjee (2014) for a similar use of framing loaded intructions in “environmental” and “corruption” games, respectively, in the context of an experimental study of corruption compare a neutral frame with one where words like “Participant A” and “Participant B,” “transfer” and “ask.” are changed in “Citizen,” “Public Official,” “bribe” and “demand,” respectively. Similarly, in our setting, we compare a neutral-language treatment and a contextually rich one. In the first we leave to the participants the task to infer from the payoff structure the public-good nature of the game and the positive externality produced by the purchase of good A, whereas in the second treatment, the structure and the reasons behind the existence of the externality are made transparent. We are interested, in fact, in studying whether these explicit reasons may reinforce the willingness to buy the socially responsible product and if this effect is different on subjects with different level of empathy. We think this may have interesting implications also in term of the external validity of our results. If the mere framing of the two products—rated and unrated—has a significant behavioural effect, especially for high empathy subjects, a fortiori, the same framing, in real life situations, could have an effect for the actual choice of real rated or unrated goods produced by actual legality rated or unrated companies. Our conclusion is that the appeal of the socially responsible products could be increased by and appropriate use of the frame and that that effect is relatively larger for high empathy subjects.

  7. 7.

    Note that in our utility function we do not have the endowment since the parameter \(\gamma\) is expressed as differential costs between the choice of vote and the choice of abstain.

  8. 8.

    In our experient, by desing, one participant repeatedly meets the same group of people for 20 periods, the observations are therefore interdependent. We provide a more conservative estimates of the treatment effects reported in Table 2 by pooling the observations by sessions. The results are mostly unchanged for Table 2 (see Table 14 in the "Appendix 5") whereas for Table 4, where we further distinguish between high and low empathy subjects the pooled observations becomes so few that any comparison is meaningless.

  9. 9.

    In our econometric analysis we treat the problem of non-independence of the observation since by estimating panel data logit regressions with standard errors clustered at session levels. Moreover, we consider lagged time variables taking this into account. More importantly, the analysis of the dynamics of cooperation is part of the interest of our results. We could not have observed the presence / absence of decay without repeated (and not independent) individual data considering observations for the players in the same treatment.

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Correspondence to Alejandra Vásquez.

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We would like to thank Marta Pancheva and Joaquin Ossandon for excellent research assistance. Financial support from the University of Cagliari is kindly acknowledged.

Appendices

Appendix 1: Legality rating

The legality rating is an instrument designed to increase the competitiveness of lawful companies by supporting their ethical and honest initiatives. It was approved by the Italian Parliament at the end of 2012.

Two conditions must be met by the companies that work in Italy in order to ask for the legality rating:

  1. 1.

    Achieving a turnover of at least two million euros in the year before asking for the legality rating. This value must be ascribed either to the single enterprise, or to the group to which the single enterprise belongs and whose balance-sheet was duly approved.

  2. 2.

    To be signed in the registry of businesses for at least two years.

Companies willing to be rated can apply through an online form and follow the guidelines published on the AGCM website.

The legality rating ranges from a minimum score of one star to a maximum score of three stars, and it is awarded by the Italian Competition Authority (ICA) on the basis of information directly provided by the company and further verified through cross-checks with data owned by the public administration.

“One-star”-legality rating

In order to be eligible for the minimum score (i.e. the “one-star”-legality rating) a firm must fulfill the following requirements:

  1. 1.

    The entrepreneur and other relevant individuals must not be the recipients of preventive and / or precautionary measures, nor must they be convicted for tax-related crimes. They must not be addressed by judicial sentences for mafia, nor must they be involved with mafia activities of any sort. The firm must not have been submitted to compulsory administration, nor must it have been convicted for administrative wrongdoings.

  2. 2.

    In the 2-year period before applying for the legality rating the firm must not have been convicted for serious crimes related to anti-trust, for breaching the code of consumption, for not respecting norms about safety and security in the workplace, or for not complying with the obligations towards employees and collaborators in terms of remunerations, contributions, insurance responsibilities, and fiscal matters. Moreover, the firm must not have been under scrutiny for declaring less income than what was verified, for having experienced revocations of public funds that were not duly paid back by the firm itself, or for not having paid taxes. Likewise, the enterprise must not have received any sanction by the Italian Anti-Corruption Authority implying the prohibition to either sign contracts with the public administration, or to participate in auctions for public procurement.

  3. 3.

    Eventually, the company must declare that it uses exclusively traceable payment methods in order to process financial transactions whose value is higher than one thousand euros.

“Two-stars” and “three-stars”-legality rating

More requirements are needed for firms to be rated with two or three stars of legality. If at least six of the following accomplishments are met, then a firm will obtain two stars:

  1. 1.

    Complying with the Legality Protocol signed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Italian Industrial Federation, with its guidelines for implementation, and with the Protocol signed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Association of Cooperatives together with local prefectures and trade associations.

  2. 2.

    Using traceable payment methods to also process financial transactions whose amounts are lower than the threshold stated by the law.

  3. 3.

    Adopting an organizational framework apt to the conformity control as stated by the law.

  4. 4.

    Adopting processes that grant Corporate Social Responsibility.

  5. 5.

    Being registered to lists of entities that are not prone to mafia infiltrations.

  6. 6.

    Endorsing the ethical codes of self-regulation that are defined by trade associations.

  7. 7.

    Having in place organizational frameworks to prevent and contrast corruption.

Denunciations of crimes by the entrepreneur and their family and collaborators, if followed by legal penal consequences, shall be held in high esteem.

Duration of the legality rating

The legality rating lasts two years since its release, and it can be renewed upon request.

If one of the minimum prerequisites fails to exist, the ICA will revoke the one-star rating.

If the conditions upon which a two- or three-star rating is awarded is no longer present, the ICA can reduce the legality rating.

The ICA will keep its website up to date with the list of companies awarded with the legality rating, along with effective dates and subsequent suspensions and revocations.

English web pages about the legality rating by AGCM:

https://www.agcm.it/en/newsroom/press-releases/2196-boom-of-requests-to-antitrust-authority-to-obtain-the-rating-of-legality.html

https://www.group.intesasanpaolo.com/scriptIsir0/si09/contentData/view/Rating_Legalit%C3%A0_eng.pdf?id=CNT-04-000000011635A&ct=application/pdf

https://www.agcm.it/en/statistics/doc_download/477-annualreport2014presentation.html

Policy documents mentioning the legality rating by AGCM:

Page 2: https://ec.europa.eu/competition/ecn/brief/03_2012/it_powers.pdf

Appendix 2: Instructions

Table 9 Payoff structure (Baseline)
Table 10 Costs and benefits conditional on others’ Choices (Baseline)
Table 11 Payoff structure (Redistribution)
Table 12 Costs and benefits conditional on others’ choices (Redistribution)

.

English translation
General instructions
Welcome and thanks for participating to this experiment
Our goal is to verify the impact of some factors on our decision processes
Together with other participants you will have to take decisions in different situations. Depending of your decisions along with those of the other participants you will get a certain number of points. One among all your decision will be picked randomly and the points you get in that particular situation will be converted in euros (with the exchange rate 2 points = 1 euro) and paid to you in cash. Besides, you will receive 5 points for participating. These points will sum up to those gained during the experiment
Your identity and those of the other participants to the experiment will never be revealed even after the end of the experiment. Also, your choices and answers will be dealt with anonymously (without reference to your identity)
Overall the experimental session will last approximately 1 h
We ask you to work alone and in silence
Thanks for your participation!
Specific instructions
Baseline condition
In this session you will be asked to choose (for 10 rounds) which, between two products (product A and product B), you intend to buy. For every round you will be given an endowment of 20 points that you will be able to spend to purchase one of the two products. At each round, after your choice and the choices of all other players, we will tell to you and them, without revealing their identity, how many players have chosen product A and product B. After this information you will play the following round
Round n
You receive an endowment of 20 points. You must choose whether to buy:
 Product A
 Product B
Product A costs ten points. If you buy product A you will receive three points for any of the other players choosing to buy product A
Product B costs five points. If you buy product A you will receive three points for any of the other players choosing to buy product A
The effect on your payoff of the two players’ choices (buying product A or product B) are summarized in the table which follows: (Table A3.1)
Each of the ten players is in the same situation as you and faces the same payoff table
Your final payoff from each of the different choices you may make (conditional to other participants’ choices) is summarized in the following table: (Table A3.2)
Please choose:
 Product A
 Product B
Redistribution Condition
Same as in the Base treatment plus:
Notice that, at the end of each round 1 point will be subtracted from the payoff of all those participants who have chosen product B. All those points will form a common fund that will equally divided among the participants who have chosen product A
The effect on your payoff of the two players’ choices (buying product A or product B) are summarized in the table which follows: (Table A3.3)
Each of the ten players is in the same situation as you and faces the same payoff table
Your final payoff from each of the different choices you may make (conditional to other participants’ choices) is summarized in the following table: (table A3.4)
Please choose:
 Product A
 Product B
Frame condition
As in the Baseline plus framed description of Product A as follows:
Product A is a product or service provided by an enterprise awarded with the “3-stars legality rating”
This rating can be conferred by the Italian Competition Authority (i.e. Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato, “Authority” from now on) upon request of a company. In order to be signaled with the 3-stars rating a company must have in place organizational frameworks to prevent and fight of corruption. Specifically, conditions for 3-stars rating are stated by the Authority as follows:
 1. the entrepreneur must not be involved in lawsuit for mafia, tax-evasion, antitrust behaviours, unfair practices towards employees and customers, and bad administration (minimum accomplishments to be 1-star rated);
 2. the enterprise mush accomplish ministerial codes of conduct, employ trackable paying methods, adopt organisational frameworks liable to the legal conformity control, endorse processes that guarantee the Corporate Social Responsibility, be listed among enterprises that are not tied to mafia, and adhere to existing ethical codes of conduct;
 3. have in place organizational frameworks to prevent and fight corruption
Product A costs ten points. By buying product A you gain three points directly, and you will gain 3 points for each player who purchases product A too
Product B is a product or service provided by an enterprise which is not awarded with the legality rating issued by the Authority (i.e. either the company did not enquire for the rating, or it asked for the rating but did not obtain it)
Product B costs five points. By buying product B you do not gain any point directly, but you will still gain three points for each player who purchases product A
Original Italian
Istruzioni Generali
Benvenuto e grazie per aver deciso di partecipare a questo studio
Siamo interessati alla comprensione di alcuni fattori che influenzano i nostri processi decisionali
Durante questo studio ti troverai a dover prendere delle decisioni in differenti situazioni. Le tue decisioni insieme alle decisioni prese dagli altri partecipanti allo studio determineranno la vincita di un certo numero di punti. Tra tutte le decisioni che prenderai, una verrà estratta in maniera casuale, e i punti guadagnati in quella situazione verranno convertiti in euro e pagati realmente (tasso di conversione 2 punti = 1 euro). Per la sola partecipazione, poi, riceverai 5 punti che andranno a sommarsi a quelli guadagnati durante la sessione
La tua identità e l’identità degli altri partecipanti non verranno mai svelate, né ora né dopo la fine dello studio. Anche tutte le tue scelte e ogni tua risposta verrà trattata in maniera assolutamente anonima senza nessun riferimento alla tua identità. Nel complesso la sessione durerà approssimativamente un’ora
Ti chiediamo di lavorare da solo e in silenzio
Grazie ancora per la tua partecipazione!
Istruzioni specifiche
Gioco Base
In questa situazione dovrai scegliere ripetutamente (per 10 volte) quale tra due prodotti (prodotto A e prodotto B) acquistare. Ogni volta ti verrà assegnata una certa dotazione di punti che potrai spendere per l’acquisto di uno dei prodotti. Dopo che tu e tutti gli altri avranno scelto, ti verrà comunicato (in maniera anonima) quanti giocatori hanno scelto il prodotto A e quanti il prodotto B prima di giocare nuovamente
Periodo n
Ricevi una dotazione iniziale di 20 punti. Devi decidere se:
 Acquistare il prodotto A
 Acquistare il prodotto B
Il prodotto A costa ten punti. Acquistando il prodotto A otterrai three punti per ognuno degli altri giocatori che, nel tuo gruppo, ha scelto di acquistare come te il prodotto A
Il prodotto B costa five punti. Acquistando il prodotto B otterrai three punti per ognuno degli altri giocatori che, nel tuo gruppo, ha scelto di acquistare il prodotto A
Le conseguenze (in termini di guadagni) delle due possibili scelte (acquistare il prodotto A o il prodotto B) sono riassunte nella tabella 1 (Tabella A3.1)
Ognuno dei ten partecipanti si trova nella tua stessa situazione e ha la stessa tabella che descrive i guadagni a seconda delle scelte effettuate dagli altri giocatori
Il tuo guadagno per ognuna delle 10 scelte dipende non solo da quale bene decidi di acquistare tu, ma anche dalle scelte di acquisto che faranno gli altri giocatori, secondo lo schema della tabella 2: (Tabella A3.2)
Quale prodotto scegli?
 Prodotto A
 Prodotto B
Redistribuzione
Come nel trattamento base più:
Nota Bene: Rispetto alla situazione precedente però, ora c’è una novità. Ad ogni giocatore che avrà scelto il prodotto B verrà prelevato 1 punto che andrà a formare un fondo complessivo che verrà, poi, redistribuito in parti uguali a tutti i giocatori che avranno scelto il prodotto A
Le conseguenze (in termini di guadagni) delle due possibili scelte (acquistare il prodotto A o il prodotto B) sono riassunte nella tabella n.3 (Tabella A3.3)
Ognuno dei ten partecipanti si trova nella tua stessa situazione e ha la stessa tabella che descrive i guadagni a seconda delle scelte effettuate dagli altri giocatori
Il tuo guadagno per ognuna delle 10 scelte dipende non solo da quale bene decidi di acquistare tu, ma anche dalle scelte di acquisto che faranno gli altri giocatori, secondo lo schema della seguente tabella (tabella A3.4)
Quale prodotto scegli?
 Profotto A
 Prodotto B
Frame
Come nel gioco base più la descrizione del prodotto A come segue:
Il prodotto A è un bene venduto da un’impresa a cui è stato attribuito il certificato “3 stelle di legalità”
Questo certificato viene rilasciato dall’Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (AGCOM) su richiesta dell’impresa interessata. Per ottenere “3 stelle di legalità” è necessario che:
 1. L’imprenditore non sia coinvolto in processi per mafia, evasione fiscale, comportamenti anticoncorrenziali, comportamenti scorretti ai danni di lavoratori e consumatori, e cattiva amministrazione (requisiti minimi per l’ottenimento di “1 stella di legalità”)
 2. L’impresa operi nel rispetto dei codici di condotta ministeriali, utilizzi sistemi di pagamento tracciabili, adotti modelli organizzativi che garantiscano i controlli di conformità, adotti processi in linea con la responsabilità sociale, compaia negli elenchi di imprese non legate all’organizzazione mafiosa, aderisca ai codici etici e di condotta esistenti
 3. abbia “adottato modelli organizzativi di prevenzione e di contrasto della corruzione”
Il prodotto A costa ten punti. Acquistando il prodotto A otterrai three punti per ognuno degli altri giocatori che, nel tuo gruppo, ha scelto di acquistare come te il prodotto A
Il prodotto B è un bene o fornito da un’impresa priva del certificato di legalità AGCOM (può non averlo richiesto oppure non rispetta tutti i requisiti di cui sopra)
Il prodotto B costa fivc punti. Acquistando il prodotto B otterrai three punti per ognuno degli altri giocatori che, nel tuo gruppo, ha scelto di acquistare il prodotto A

Appendix 3: Empathy test

Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI)

The following statements inquire about your thoughts and feelings in a variety of situations. For each item, indicate how well it describes you by choosing the appropriate letter on the scale at the top of the page: a, b, c, d, or e. When you have decided on your answer, fill in the letter on the answer sheet next to the item number. Read each Item Carefully before Responding. Answer as honestly as you can. Thank you.

Answer scale:

A B C D E
Does not describe me well     Describes me very well
No Item A B C D E
1 I daydream and fantasize, with some regularity, about things that might happen to me (FS)      
2 I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me (EC)      
3 I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the "other guy's" point of view (PT) (–)      
4 Sometimes I don't feel very sorry for other people when they are having problems (EC) (–)      
5 I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel (FS)      
6 In emergency situations, I feel apprehensive and ill-at-ease (PD)      
7 I am usually objective when I watch a movie or play, and I do not often get completely caught up in it. (FS) (–)      
8 I try to look at everybody's side of a disagreement before I make a decision (PT)      
9 When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them (EC)      
10 I sometimes feel helpless when I am in the middle of a very emotional situation (PD)      
11 I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective (PT)      
12 Becoming extremely involved in a good book or movie is somewhat rare for me. (FS) (–)      
13 When I see someone get hurt, I tend to remain calm. (PD) (–)      
14 Other people's misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal. (EC) (–)      
15 If I'm sure I'm right about something, I don't waste much time listening to other people's arguments (PT) (–)      
16 After seeing a play or movie, I have felt as though I were one of the characters (FS)      
17 Being in a tense emotional situation scares me (PD)      
18 When I see someone being treated unfairly, I sometimes don't feel very much pity for them. (EC) (–)      
19 I am usually pretty effective in dealing with emergencies. (PD) (–)      
20 I am often quite touched by things that I see happen. (EC)      
21 I believe that there are two sides to every question and try to look at them both. (PT)      
22 I would describe myself as a pretty soft-hearted person. (EC)      
23 When I watch a good movie, I can very easily put myself in the place of a leading character. (FS)      
24 I tend to lose control during emergencies. (PD)      
25 When I'm upset at someone, I usually try to "put myself in his shoes" for a while. (PT)      
26 When I am reading an interesting story or novel, I imagine how I would feel if the events in the story were happening to me. (FS)      
27 When I see someone who badly needs help in an emergency, I go to pieces. (PD)      
28 Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place. (PT)      

Note: (–) denotes items to be scored in reverse way

PT Perspective-taking scale, FS fantasy scale, EC empathic concern scale, PD personal distress scale

Scores: A = 0; B = 1; C = 2; D = 3; E = 4, except for reversed-scored items, which are scored: A = 4; B = 3; C = 2; D = 1; E = 0; adapted from Davis (1983)

Appendix 4: Socio-demographic Questionnaire

figurea
figureb

Appendix 5: Summary statistics and additional tables

See Tables

Table 13 Summary statistics

13 and

Table 14 Hypothesis testing (observations pooled by session)

14.

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Pelligra, V., Vásquez, A. Empathy and socially responsible consumption: an experiment with the vote-with-the-wallet game. Theory Decis 89, 383–422 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11238-020-09756-2

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Keywords

  • Empathy
  • Responsible consumption
  • Redistribution
  • Framing
  • Conformity
  • Laboratory experiment