Newswise — People punish generous group members by rejecting them socially — even though the generosity benefits everyone — because the “big givers” are nonconformists, according to a Baylor University study.
The study, published in the journal Social Science Research, showed that besides socially rejecting especially generous givers, others even “paid” to punish them through a points system.
“This is puzzling behavior,” said researcher Kyle Irwin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences. “Why would you punish the people who are doing the most — especially when it benefits the group? It doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface, but it shows the power of norms. It may be that group members think it’s more important to conform than for the group to do well.”
“Free-riders” – those who were stingy but benefited from others’ larger contributions — also were nonconformists and ostracized.
Irwin and co-researcher Christine Horne, Ph.D., a sociologist at Washington State University, conducted a “public goods” experiment with 310 participants. Each person was given 100 points (which translated into opportunities to win a gift card) and had to decide how many to give to the group and how many to keep, with contributions doubled and divided equally regardless of how much people donated. Decisions were made via computers, and individuals did not know or communicate with other group members before making their decisions. (In the experiment, other group members actually were simulated, with pre-programmed behavior.)
Each person in a six-member group also had the opportunity to “pay” via the points system to punish those who contributed the most. The “punisher” would have to give up one point for every three points he or she deducted from the most generous member.
Each member also rated on a scale of 1 to 9 how much they wanted each of the others to remain in the group.
Each participant was told he or she would see the contributions of four others and then decide how much to give, with the final member giving last. The final giver always was pre-programmed to be stingier or much more generous than the others.
Group members’ donations averaged 50 percent of their resources. The “stingiest” individual gave only 10 percent, while the most generous one gave 90 percent.
Irwin likened the punishments to shunning or poking fun at someone who had done the bulk of work in a group project for a class — or even kicking the person out of the group.
“There could be a number of reasons why the others punish a generous member,” he said. “It may be that the generous giver made them look or feel bad. Or they may feel jealous or like they’re not doing enough.”
Irwin suggested that at some point, if the contributions became very large, group members’ wish to benefit might override their desire to punish.
*Research was funded in part by a seed grant from Baylor University Research Committee and the Vice Provost for Research.
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Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.
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The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 26 academic departments and 13 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines.