[Analyse] Micro-foundations of Social Preferences

The research carried out in this project aims to identify a causal link between one’s life experience and one’s preference for domination versus cooperation.

Up until now, the economic literature on social preferences, and in particular social trust, has largely focused on a few particular individual characteristics such as gender and education. However, these end up being rather crude because they fail to capture the full extent of and variation in individual-level factors of social preferences. In part, this is due to the fact that large scale social surveys tend to lack sound behavioural measures and small-scale laboratory experiments tend to lack heterogeneity in their samples. Large-scale social behavioural barometers, such as those developped in TrustLab, can resolve this dilemma and provide a comprehensive analysis of social behaviors by looking at individuals’ complete life experiences.

The life history hypothesis (Stearns, 1992) is particularly relevant to such an analysis, as it posits that the schedule and duration of key events in an organism’s lifetime are shaped in part by natural selection aimed at producing the largest possible number of surviving offspring. In harsher environments, where extrinsic mortality is high and life span shorter, organisms tend to mature earlier, reproduce earlier, and have a higher number of offspring and a lower level of parental investment. Similarly, people living in a deprived neighborhood tend to be more impulsive, take more risks, and surrender to temptations more quickly (Griskevicius et al., 2013). In short, people living in the harshest neighborhoods or in the harshest societies develop (often unconsciously) faster and riskier strategies to cope with the danger and unpredictability of their environment.

Based on the idea that extrinsic mortality has an impact on moral behaviour and social preferences, the research carried out in this project aims to identify a causal link between one’s life experience (in particular relative to how difficult it has been) and one’s preference for domination versus cooperation. If cooperation is essentially a long-term strategy, then individuals who experience an “accelerated” life history (due to environmental harshness) should prioritise defection in order to get the resulting short-term gains. In preferring short-term gains, they should also prefer physically dominant partners rather than trustworthy ones. And, ultimately, they should also show a preference for proportionality over equality, again because it provides a more immediate reward.

To make this link, this project will measure social preferences through instruments designed to elicit individuals’ preferences for dominant versus cooperative partners. It will focus on sub-samples of the population with starkly contrasting characteristics in terms of wealth and zip codes. A detailed questionnaire will fill in the blanks when it comes to individuals’ life histories.

Research article