NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 2, 2008

People who put themselves ahead of the common good often face shame and other types of punishment from the remainder of society when their free-loading behavior is revealed.  That's how we foster a community that benefits everyone, even at some cost to ourselves, says Robert Lee Hotz of the Wall Street Journal.

A team of experimental economists recently tested 1,120 university students in fifteen countries to compare how people in disparate communities actually weigh private gain against public good.  In each country, the students behaved the same way until given the chance to punish those taking a free ride of the shared investment: 

  • In countries with democratic market economies, peer pressure goaded people to cooperate; students in the United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland and China began to contribute more generously after receiving punishment from the remainder of the group.
  • Among authoritarian societies or those dominated more by ties of kinship, freeloaders instead lashed out at those who censured them; in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Greece and Russia, the freeloaders often struck back, retaliating against those who punished them. 

The readiness to retaliate, researchers said, reflected relatively lower levels of trust, civic cooperation and the rule of law.  Researchers remain puzzled by these differences in behavior across cultures, which they suggest could result because freeloaders are angry at being trumped by strangers, unwilling to share with people they don't know, or believe they are being treated unfairly.  Despite lacking a clear explanation for these cultural differences, it is clear social appearances and the good opinion of others do regulate our behavior, says Hotz.

Source: Robert Lee Hotz, "Revenge of the Freeloaders," Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2008; based upon: Science 7 March 2008: Herbert Gintis, "Punishment and Cooperation," Science, Vol. 319, No. 5868, March 2008.

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