Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics

CeDEx 2015-14: Conditional Cooperation and Betrayal Aversion

Conditional Cooperation and Betrayal Aversion


Situations where public goods must be provided voluntarily set collective welfare against narrowly-conceived individual self-interest. Despite this, evidence from many previous lab and field studies indicates that people are often willing to contribute to provision and that most of those who do so are "conditional cooperators", in that they contribute only if they expect others to do so as well. 

In this Nottingham School of Economics working, Robin Cubitt, Simon Gächter and Simone Quercia investigate the psychology behind conditional cooperation. They use a new lab experiment and an online study to examine the relationship between conditional cooperation and a phenomenon known as "betrayal aversion" identified in previous research on trust. Betrayal aversion is displayed when agents are more reluctant to take risks that will be resolved by actions of other human agents (ie. which require trust) than they are to take risks that turn on chance. Conditional cooperation and betrayal aversion seem to be related forms of preference as each can be regarded as stemming from reluctance to "be the sucker". But, though each has been studied extensively on its own, the link between them is comparatively unexplored.

The paper reports an experiment in which a public goods game is used to classify subjects into different types of preference for contribution, and by beliefs about the contributions of others. Betrayal aversion is measured, for different categories of subject, through a comparison of willingness to take risks that turn on choices of other subjects versus risks that turn on chance. The main finding is that, among conditional cooperators, only those who expect others to contribute little to the public good ("pessimists") are significantly betrayal averse, whereas there is no evidence of betrayal aversion for those who expect substantial contributions by others ("optimists"). This is consistent with subjects' social risk taking in a public goods game, as pessimistic conditional cooperators tend to avoid contribution (so insulating themselves against exploitation) whereas optimistic ones typically contribute to the public good (so risking exploitation). The link between pessimistic conditional cooperation and aversion to exploitation is confirmed in a comparison of self-reported emotional responses to different vignettes and in a further online study. Thus, though the paper finds evidence of a connection between conditional cooperation and betrayal aversion, it suggests that it is not simply an association between two forms of preference but also involves beliefs about the cooperativeness of others.

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Now published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (September 2017)

CeDEx Discussion Paper 2015/14, Conditional Cooperation and Betrayal Aversion by Robin Cubitt, Simon Gächter and Simone Quercia


Robin Cubitt, Simon Gächter and Simone Quercia

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Posted on Tuesday 21st July 2015

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