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Collaboration Induces Debt-Motivated Altruism (WP-23-01)

Mary McGrath

Collaboration with others—even a minimal instance—increases willingness to sacrifice on their behalf. What is the mechanism underlying this relationship? An increased willingness to sacrifice could arise from a general desire to improve the other’s wellbeing, from a norm-bound sense of debt owed to one’s collaborator, or (even after controlling for other egoistic concerns) from an aim towards a “warm glow” feeling from making the sacrifice. Understanding the mechanism at work is not simply a matter of theoretical interest, but of crucial importance in understanding broader implications of the collaboration effect and how it alters our relationships with others. This paper presents results from four randomized experiments investigating this mechanism. Rather than exhibiting egoistic concerns, a desire to strictly increase the collaborator’s wellbeing, or a general aversion to inequality, people behave as if collaboration creates an obligation of debt owed to the collaborator. Taken together, the evidence from these experiments suggests that collaboration produces a bounded form of altruism, focused on what is due but not beyond.
Mary McGrath, Assistant Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

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