One Among Many

The self in social context

The Spirit of Giving

Two notes on the volunteer's dilemma

gift econ
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More on the gift economy

Many academics have not become entrepreneurial; they continue to subsist in a gift economy. When they publish the hard-won fruits of their labor, they sign the copyright over to the publisher and hope that others will cite their work. They review each other’s manuscripts and advise editors on which papers to publish and which to reject. This is hard and time-consuming work. Most academics cooperate willingly; defection might induce guilt, and it might be noticed and sanctioned in the long term. Being used to giving their labor away in the interest of the common good, academics often agree to do something for nothing, something that goes beyond the call for service as conventionally understood. They give away time and expertise when they could reasonably expect compensation. I described an example in Free Advice, which features the tactics of a money-making magazine. Here’s another example, this time from a not-for-profit magazine, but nevertheless one that tests the boundaries of the gift economy.

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The magazine in question publishes short online papers aimed at the general audience. Each paper is reviewed by an expert professional, a non-expert member of the academic field, and a “writing consultant.” An intern from the editorial office asked if I would serve as a writing consultant. She (or the office) had concluded from my blogging that I can write. The fact that I had already published in their magazine did not appear to matter (or was not noticed). The intern presented no incentives for taking on this task other than pointing out that better written papers would propel the magazine from one with “thousands of readers” and one that they “would like to claim that [it] is the highest impact journal in social psychology” to one whose “articles become of even higher quality (and the message to be even clearer to the audience).” Setting aside the overly sanguine claim of having the highest impact, the request is focused on what is good for the journal, not what is good for those who are asked to help make it so. The email continues to state that “We are in need of people like you, who have already developed as scientific writers and whose skills are recognized worldwide. Thus, we are hoping that you will be willing to help our magazine become better.” This is an interesting bargaining technique. It cuts straight to the assumption that academics are thoughtless fixed-action pattern response machines. Ask them to gift the economy, and click-whirr (Cialdini, 1984), they will.

Or not. Serving as a reviewer means being part of an exchange community. Serving as a writing consultant gives labor away without compensation. Often academics settle for recognition if they can’t get money, but here, there is no such thing. The gift would be anonymous. To invite anyone to make such a gift is either naïve or gutsy. Pointing out that three others have already agreed to be writing consultants has little effect if those individuals are science journalists and not academic peers. This is a misfiring of Cialdini’s social proof technique to induce compliance.

There is a way of doing this right. Writing consultants perform a professional service that lies outside the gift economy. They should be paid. If money is in short supply at a nonprofit magazine, it must be raised. An online journal (as the one in question) can sell ad space, as Psychology Today does, for example. The editors could also describe their need for funds to pay writing consultants, and ask for financial contributions. That would be straightforward. To use a rather primitive compliance technique, do it awkwardly (let an intern handle the correspondence), and target those individuals who themselves study these techniques is rather comical.

In game-theoretic terms, the gift-exchange economy among authors and reviewers, where each author also serves as a reviewer, is a multi-player repeated public-goods game. Everyone benefits from a cooperative and efficiently working system. Defecting by not reviewing is tempting only in the short term. In this context, cooperation is the prosocial and moral strategy, and it is smart too. In contrast, a Volunteer’s Dilemma (Diekmann, 1985, see also here and here) is played most efficiently if there is only one (or perhaps a few) volunteer(s), who provide a benefit to others at a cost to themselves. Volunteering is conventionally seen as morally good. There are, however, two problems. One is that if everyone volunteers, the collective outcome is far less than optimal. The other problem is that volunteering can amount to defection under certain conditions. The “writing consultant” scenario is such a condition. The publisher is looking for volunteers to help them. Incidentally, the situation is asymmetric, as there is no provision for the publisher to help the consultant. At any rate, in a pool of potential consultants, those who volunteer to accept a payless job are defecting against their peers by destroying their bargaining position. For example, a publisher who persuades academics to work for free has outflanked professional writing consultants who would offer to do the work for hire – and make a living. Volunteering can thus be a noble or an ignoble thing, depending on the circumstances. 

Raise your hand with p = .5

In the Psychology of Volunteering I noted that psychologists (and most folk) assume that when a person does X instead of Y, this is because of a reasoned choice. The assumption that people make a choice paves the way for inferences about preferences and attributions of responsibility. Game theory, however, counsels that a rational agent choose her strategy probabilistically when there is no pure equilibrium. In the volunteer’s dilemma, a mixed-strategy equilibrium is given by p = R/T, where R is the payoff for volunteering and T is the payoff for unilateral defection. Game theory does not care whether a person (or any organism) has the capacity to generate a particular choice, say volunteering, with a particular probability. Indeed, many statisticians assert that it makes no sense to ascribe a probability to a single event. The person either volunteers or defects. Probabilities can emerge only as a matter of the relative frequencies of these events over trials. When humans and other animals make a sequence of choices, they can, in fact, behave in a way that appears random to an observer, and this capacity is of great value in environments that punish predictability, such as poker or predation (Miller, 1997).

Suppose we observe a series of choices in which a player volunteers 50% of the time. Looking at the series, we notice that any particular choice cannot be predicted from past choices. This amounts to saying that at each individual trial the probability of volunteering is .5. Now we are making a probability statement about an individual choice. We might then hide all other choices except this particular one from the observer. Given that this observer only knows the outcome of this particular choice, he or she cannot help but conclude that this choice was determined by causal forces consistent with the outcome. These causal forces may even include the player’s “free will” because a random choice would not be free or not be willed. Any causal attribution denies the element of probability. What is more, a causal attribution will not only force itself on the observer, but also on the player. If I ask you to raise your hand with probability .5 and then you do, how are you to know that your choice was random? There is no type of mental information or imagination that can represent this idea. Unless, that is, you externalize the generation of the probability. You could use a die. If a toss yields an even number, you’ll raise your hand. Letting a die guide your choices, liberates you and befuddles the observer. Before you try this at home, remember that acting probabilistically is not a suitable strategy in all circumstances; it works best when the environment punishes predictability.

Cialdini, R. B. (1984). Influence. New York. Morrow.

Diekmann, A. (1985). Volunteer's dilemma. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 29, 605-610.

Miller, G. F. (1997). Protean primates: The evolution of adaptive unpredictability in competition and courtship. In A. Whiten & R. W. Byrne (Eds.), Machiavellian intelligence II: Extensions and applications (pp. 312-340). New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.

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