Social norms and preferences for generosity are domain dependent
Hande Erkut

Imagine you are walking down a street and a stranger asks you for 10 euros. What would your reaction be? Now, imagine a stranger approaches you and asks you to help him carry a heavy suitcase. What would your reaction be this time? Are you more likely to help a stranger carry a suitcase or to give him money? Why are you more willing to help in one situation than in the other? 

Anecdotal evidence suggests we are more likely to give someone a helping hand than to give them money. The question is why? The answer is important because many situations with non-pecuniary costs and benefits, such as effort provision at work, taking precautions for climate change, and volunteering for a good cause, have sizable social and economic consequences. 

With a series of laboratory experiments, BSE researcher Hande Erkut provides empirical support for the proposed hypothesis and suggests social norms are key to explaining this difference in helping.  

The study’s results show that when people allocate a given duration of pain (a high-pitched sound) between themselves and another person they are paired with, they are more generous than when they allocate money. In other words, people are more likely to share the pain equally, whereas they are more likely to take most of the money for themselves. The results further reveal that being more averse to hurting others than to hurting oneself, or failing to maximize utility, cannot explain why people are more generous when allocating pain. Instead, the results show the social norms for sharing pain and money are different, and this difference can explain different levels of generosity when giving money and pain. 

The results underline that context matters for generosity, and they highlight the importance of knowing the social norms governing behavior in relevant contexts. The knowledge of context-dependent behavior and social norms is important to inform policymakers on how to motivate people to behave in a public-minded way. 

This study has recently been published in Games and Economic Behavior: 

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