Tuesday, March 09, 2010
Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in someone else's pain or misfortune, seems to appear a normal thing to most people. It occurs in literature, comedy, our every day lives. But what do Economics and Social Psychology have to say about it? We know from previous research by Simon Gaechter, Benedikt Herrmann and several others that people display 'anti-social preferences' - they punish people who contribute more than they do to a public good. Now, a recent experimental paper, 'The pleasure of being nasty' by Klaus Abbink and Abdolkarim Sadrieh, tries to take some of this work forward, they investigate a game in which players can destroy the output of others without reaping any benefit from the destruction, or without incurring any cost for doing so. What do you think people might do?
Abbink and Sadrieh nested an experiment that allowed players to destroy the output of others in an experiment in which subjects were asked to evaluate adverts for a marketing campaign. They then had the option to 'destroy' the production of another person who was doing a similar evaluation. The destruction treatment came in two forms: in the first treatment (open) subjects could destroy the produce of their partner and the information was shared perfectly, in the second treatment (hidden) the information was shared imperfectly because a random amount would be destroyed. The procedure was repeated ten times. The incidence of nastiness for the two treatments differed substantially (see Fig. 1 adjacent) and people evidently took advantage of the opportunity to destroy their partner's production more when there was less chance of being found out.
So, when there is no benefit to destroying, people destroy anyway. When there is less risk of being found out by your counterpart - even though they could retaliate - people destroy a bit. Moreover, the subjects tendency to destroy did not correlate with whether they had experienced their produce being destroyed in previous rounds. Also, the subjects did not seem to be driven by inequity aversion because they often destroyed their counterpart's produce even their counterpart had the same as or less than they did. Abbink and Sadrieh make the point that we need to reconcile these results of nastiness with the many results we have about prosociality, cooperation, inequity aversion and others. The view also needs to be reconciled with our conception of rational homo economicus which might say that no rational individual would just destroy things without a pecuniary benefit. So, because I take pleasure in the misfortunes of homo economicus, I'll end by linking to the song schadenfreude from Avenue Q - 'Cos when I see how sad you are, it sorta makes me happy!'