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Symposium 2015

Solution for Reflexivity: The Interplay between Caring Decisions and Caring Societies

The Challenge

How can the communities of people around the globe be induced to become more caring, not just within the social groups from which they derive their identities, but also across these groups? As the w ...

How can the communities of people around the globe be induced to become more caring, not just within the social groups from which they derive their identities, but also across these groups? As the world's problems - from climate change to financial crises - become more global in reach, how can people's domain of altruism be extended accordingly? What concrete steps can be taken across countries and cultures to strengthen the bonds of cooperation and weaken the forces of conflict?

Culture and the Formation of (In)Efficient Conventions

The problem
There is strong evidence to suggest that institutions are a key determinant of countries’ economic success (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2013). To succeed, an economy must resolve coordination problems: for example, common respect for property, common level of effort under “weakest link technology,” and broad willingness to sanction rule violations. Particular coordination problems that Indian villages need to also solve include common rules for draining waste water to keep dirt roads passable, and for common planting times to reduce the risk of damage to a single field from birds and other predators.

To solve coordination problems standard economics suggests creating enforceable laws and rules or, where they already exist, increasing the penalty for violating them and the probability of detection.

But many social scientists show that law is far less important than is generally thought. For example, laws that violate conventions are often null and laws that reflect convention are superfluous (Lewis, 1969; Ellickson 1991).

Despite this, relatively little is known about how conventions are formed. One way of better understanding how they emerge is to capture stylized snapshots of convention formation in experimental games in the field. Strategic games and other kinds of experiments provide a way to test hypotheses about why groups succeed and fail in establishing efficient conventions. In this discussion, we will consider an experiment in north India aimed at investigating the roots of dysfunctional conventions in caste-based society. Dysfunctional conventions are a big problem in north Indian villages, which makes this area a good place to explore this question.

The solution
The Stag Hunt game is viewed as the most appropriate game for studying the social contract (Skyrms, 2003). In this game, an individual can choose:

a) To “go it alone” and have a fixed, low return, regardless of what his partner does; or
b) To contribute to a collective endeavor (called “hunting a stag” in a parable of Rousseau) and earn a high return if his partner also contributes to the collective endeavor, but suffer a loss if his partner does not. We call the loss the “loser’s payoff.”

Earlier experiments found that in fixed pairs, an iterated Stag Hunt is a tractable coordination problem. In nearly all pairs, the efficient convention emerges after only three periods of the iterated game.

Caste is a prominent feature of social identity in India. We drew men from systematically selected households in high and low castes in north India (Brooks, Hoff, and Pandey, 2015). We formed all three possible kinds of pairs: HH (high-caste partners), LL (low-caste partners), and HL (a high-caste man paired with a low-caste man). Players were anonymous; they knew only that their partner was a high-caste or a low-caste man in their village. They played for five rounds with one partner and then five rounds with another. We expected that the problem of forming an efficient, cooperative convention would arise only in HL pairs. The problem would arise, we believed, because of the vast gap in status, which would reduce trust and empathy.

However, what we found was entirely different: LL pairs are quite good at quickly forming the efficient convention, whereas HH are quite poor, and HL are in between. Only a modest caste difference, however, exists in the initial period.

Why are the high castes less capable of forming efficient conventions? To investigate this, we ran regressions. We evaluated how player’s experience in the previous round affected their choices in the given round. We found just one history for which the behavior of high-caste and low-caste men diverges: after a high-caste player receives the loser’s payoff. A player in an HH pair is 41% less likely than a player in an LL pair to continue to hunt stag if in the preceding period of the fixed pairing the player received the loser’s payoff.

We hypothesized that the culture of honor of the high caste is the reason for this divergence in behavior. In the culture of honor, a man’s honor is among his most valued possessions. Anthropologists report that this culture is much stronger among high castes than low castes. It is part of the code that a slight to one’s prestige should be avenged. Honor has to be continually reaffirmed to preserve one’s status in one’s own eyes and in the community (Mandelbaum, 1993). In order to test this hypothesis more directly, we conducted a follow-up experiment. We presented another sample of high- and low-caste men in north India with vignettes (each respondent was given two vignettes). In a typical vignette, a man A takes an action (such as digging a canal or letting his cattle graze freely) that hurts the field of a man B. When B meets A, he badly beats him up. We find for each of the vignettes that a much higher fraction of high-caste respondents than low-caste respondents think that beating is justified to punish the slight.

The culture of honor is widespread and a cause of violence in many places—in ghettos in Chicago (Heller et al., 2015), among disputants over land in Liberia (Blattman et al., 2014), and among disruptive poor boys in Montreal (Algan et al., 2014). As recently reported, “‘Maintaining one’s status and credibility and honor, if you will, within that peer community is literally a matter of life and death,’ said Milwaukee’s police chief” (New York Times 9-2-15). In all three instances cited at the beginning of this paragraph, there has been success in sharply reducing violence and in increasing cooperation though interventions that either socialized individuals by letting them interact with cooperative individuals, or that caused men to recognize the risks of “thinking automatically” and responding with hostility to an ambiguous situation, in contrast to the possible benefits of “thinking deliberatively” and seeing whether the situation might be a positive-sum game. In all three cases, interventions were able to change the way that the men and boys interpreted a challenge—to not see it always a threat but sometimes as an opportunity for cooperation—and as a result reduced violence and increased cooperation.

These are some of the issues that this session will discuss to shed light on the use of games and experiments to understand the psychological drivers of conflict and to overcome them.

Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robinson (2013). Why nations fail: The origins of power, prosperity, and poverty. (Pbk. ed.). New York: Crown Business.

Algan, Yann, Elizabeth Beasley, Richard E. Tremblay, and Franck Vittaro (2012). The Long-Term Impact of Social Skills Training at School Entry: A randomized controlled trial. Sciences Po Working Paper.

Blattman, Christopher, Alexandra Hartman, and Robert Blair (2012). Building institutions at the micro-level: Results from a field experiment in property dispute and conflict resolution. Available at SSRN 2158966.

Brooks, Benjamin, Karla Hoff, and Priyanka Pandey (2015). Culture and the Formation of (In)efficient Conventions: Experimental Evidence from India. Manuscript.

Ellickson, Robert C. (1991). Order without law: How neighbors settle disputes. Harvard University Press.

Heller, Sara B., Anuj K. Shah, Jonathan Guryan, Jens Ludwig, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Harold A. Pollack (2015). Thinking, Fast and Slow? Some Field Experiments to Reduce Crime and Dropout in Chicago. NBER Working Paper No. 21178.

Mandelbaum, David G. (1993). Women’s seclusion and men’s honor: Sex roles in North India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Skyrms, Brian (2003). The stag hunt and the evolution of social structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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