Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics

CeDEx 2014-02: Human Pro-Social Motivation and the Maintenance of Social Order


This chapter presents some insights from basic behavioral research on the role of human prosocial motivation to maintain social order. I argue that social order can be conceptualized as a public goods game. Past attempts to explain social order typically relied on the assumption of selfish and rational agents (“homo economicus”). The last twenty years of research in behavioral and experimental economics have challenged this view. After presenting the most important findings of recent research on human prosociality I discuss the evidence on three pillars of the maintenance of social order. The first pillar is internalized norms of cooperation, sustained by emotions such as guilt and shame. The second pillar is the behavior of other people who typically are “conditional cooperators” willing to cooperate if others do so as well. This motivation can sustain cooperation if enough people cooperate but can jeopardize social order if many others follow selfish inclinations. The third pillar is sanctions meted out to anyone who does not cooperate; ideally punishment can work as a mere threat without being executed much. The chapter also presents some evidence on the cross-cultural variability of some findings, in particular with regard to punishment behavior. The chapter concludes with remarks on future research.

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Now published in The Oxford Handbook of Behavioral Economics and the Law


Simon Gächter


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Posted on Saturday 1st February 2014

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