Monday, June 05, 2006

An experiment in trust

Shortly before christmas last year, I took part in an economics experiment run by Paul Mosley and Pamela Lenton at the University of Sheffield. An interesting experience - a few years ago I'd interviewed Vernon Smith, who won a Nobel for basically inventing this kind of classroom experimental economics - and a rewarding one, as I ended up with 50-odd quid (and some fair-trade chocolate coins).

Mosley and Lenton were basically looking at interpersonal trust in economic exchanges - how personal background, attitudes and experience might affect your behaviour in a series of standard economic games, in which players have the option to invest in other players. The other players were anonymous in some rounds, while other rounds were played face-to-face. Players were given the real money they won during the games, so there was a real incentive to maximise your profits (especially just before xmas).

They've now released their preliminary paper on the research. Some interesting results - while actual trusting behaviour isn't correlated with how trusting people say they are (a well-established result, apparently), it is with various social and personal factors. In general, the higher income and more social engagement (with university clubs, etc), the more trusting you are. Also, the more politically 'progressive' you are (ie, the less conservative, or even Conservative, you are), the more trusting - notably, those who say they oppose tougher controls on immigration and support higher spending on health have a particular predisposition to be more trusting. Mosley and Lenton's interpretation is that "people's already formed political attitudes have an influence on their predisposition to be trusting of other individuals which is independent of other elements in the 'social history'... interpersonal trust does not just derive from interpersonal experience but from attitudes formed in other domains." That seems an important distinction - people aren't less trusting or more conservative because they've learned better, as some cynically claim.

Also, people were generally more trusting and trustworthy in the face-to-face or publicly conducted games than in the anonymous ones. Or to put it the other way, people are more likely to be nasty if they think no one's looking.

So, people with progressive attitutudes in a generally open society are more trusting and have more of what economists like to call 'social capital'. Or on the other hand, that might just make them easier to take advantage of... and as the researchers note, trust is easier to lose than to regain.



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