Duty is what one expects from others*

* Oscar Wilde quote

Cass Sunstein digs up a nice paper that draws on the social norms literature to explain common empirical results that people contribute more to public goods like charity or public radio when they see others contributing. Economists Kjell Arne Brekke, Gorm Kipperberg, and Karine Nyborg invoke the specific norm of responsibility – not a staple of standard economic theory – which they say is activated when someone recognizes that her individual actions have an impact on the public good and accept their role in contributing to it.

A duty-oriented individual prefers to keep a self-image as a decent or responsible kind of person, someone who can be trusted to do what “a person such as I do in a situation such as this.” Further, if he does not live up to his perceived responsibilities, this will impair his self-image.

Brekke, Kipperberg, Nyborg’s theory of duty-oriented social interaction differs from other explanations like contributing to gain peer approval or avoid peer disapproval, contributing out of pure conformism or reciprocity, in which I expect my good act to be repaid by yours. The difference between these alternatives and the duty-oriented explanation is that the latter have direct correlations between beliefs about others recycling and one’s one recycling while the former has an indirect correlation via its impact on individual feelings of responsibility.

The authors test the importance of duty or personal responsibility using a Norwegian recycling program. Distinguishing duty from conformity, reciprocity, or any of the other explanations is difficult, but the authors use a survey asking about beliefs about other’s recycling behavior, how certain they are about them, and about fear of social sanctions.

Our results are consistent with the idea that duty-based motivation is important for recycling, that individual responsibility is socially learned, and that responsibility is a burden which individuals are reluctant to accept. In particular, we find that while there is a direct social interaction effect, possibly caused by conformity preferences, there is also a strong indirect social interaction effect, which operates through ascription of responsibility.

However, willingness to accept responsibility depends heavily on one’s certainty about others’ recycling habits. The greater one’s uncertainty that their neighbor is separating green glass from brown, the less likely they are to accept responsibility for their own bottles. Responsibility, in other words, is a burden humans are reluctant to accept. Or in Ambrose Bierce’s words, responsibility is a “detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor.”

The authors see two policy implications. First, if people choose their own level of responsibility, economic incentives can, in some situations, be counterproductive and lead to lower contribution rates.

(One 2004 experiment) shows that most subjects playing the role of “dictator” in a dictator game experiment, even those who do share a lot within the context of this game, prefer to opt out of the game and keep a sum corresponding to the dictator allocation for themselves, thus sharing nothing. One explanation is that the role of dictator in such games is naturally associated with a responsibility for sharing; while when not placed in this role, no such responsibility applies. Their result provides an important reminder that although people appear to behave quite altruistically in a context associated with responsibility ascription, actual giving may be substantially lower if people can in fact choose to avoid those contexts.

Second, if social interaction produces strong notions of personal responsibility, multiple stable policy outcomes might be possible.

Imposing a tax on “brown” products can move the economy from an equilibrium in which everyone purchases the “brown” product to another equilibrium in which everyone chooses, instead, the more costly but “green” product. Moreover, they show that the required tax is strictly lower than the Pigou level, and that the resulting change in consumption can be permanent even if the tax is temporary. This further emphasizes the need for considering economic incentives and moral motivation jointly.

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