Engineering Human Cooperation

Does Involuntary Neural Activation Increase Public Goods Contributions?

Abstract

In a laboratory experiment, we use a public goods game to examine the hypothesis that human subjects use an involuntary eye-detector mechanism for evaluating the level of privacy. Half of our subjects are “watched” by images of a robot presented on their computer screen. The robot—named Kismet and invented at MIT—is constructed from objects that are obviously not human with the exception of its eyes. In our experiment, Kismet produces a significant difference in behavior that is not consistent with existing economic models of preferences, either self- or other-regarding. Subjects who are “watched” by Kismet contribute 29% more to the public good than do subjects in the same setting without Kismet.

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Acknowledgements

Brian Hare’s research is supported by a Sofja Kovalevskaja award received from The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research. In implementing and running the experiment, we benefited from the excellent work of the staff of the HBS experimental laboratory, including Steve Oliveira, Nick McKinney, Alyssa Knotts, Jill Hogue, and Toni Wegner. We appreciate the help and/or comments of Ernst Fehr, Urs Fishbacher, Simon Gächter, Kevin McCabe, Keith Murgnihan, Al Roth, and Lise Vesterlund. The paper was improved by comments from Steve Platek and two anonymous referees.

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Correspondence to Terence C. Burnham.

Appendix

Appendix

Instructions

Welcome!

This is an experiment about decision-making. There are other people in this room who are also participating in this experiment. You must not talk to them or communicate with them in any way until the experiment is over. The experiment will take about an hour and a half, and at the end you will be paid in private and in cash. The amount of money you will earn depends on the decisions that you and the other participants make.

In this experiment you will perform a decision task six times. We refer to each decision task as a round. In each round you will be in a group with three other people, but you will not know which of the other people in this room are in your group. The decisions made by you and the three other people in your group will determine how much you earn.

Each round you will be matched with three new group members. You will never be matched with the same person more than once.

You have been paid $10 to show up today. In addition to your show-up fee, you will earn money in each round. Your total earnings for the experiment today will be the show-up fee plus the sum of what you earn in all six rounds.

In each round you will have ten tokens, which you can place in your private account or in a shared group account. The other members of your group will also have ten tokens each and can place them in either their own private account or the shared group account. Your earnings depend on how much you keep in your private account and the total amount placed in the group account by you and the other three members of your group.

You will be paid based on the number of tokens that you collect throughout the experiment. Each token that you earn will convert to $0.20 to be paid in cash at the end of the experiment.

In each round you decide how many of your ten tokens to keep in your private account and how many to place in the group account. You will retain each token that you keep in your private account. Each token that you place in the group account will be doubled and then divided equally among the four members of the group. Likewise, each of the three other members of your group will decide on dividing their tokens between their own private account and the group account.

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Burnham, T.C., Hare, B. Engineering Human Cooperation. Hum Nat 18, 88–108 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-007-9012-2

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Keywords

  • Altruism
  • Proximate causation
  • Public goods
  • Reciprocity
  • Tinbergen