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Peter Ramsey
Published by Peter Ramsey
Jun 3rd 2017

Why do people bother leaving reviews? Perhaps it's down to overjustification.

Why is there so much traffic on the roads? This is probably most often asked by motorists in traffic jams. In other words, people who are part of the problem themselves. But how does this relate to people reviewing their experiences online?

Why do people bother leaving reviews? Perhaps it's down to overjustification.

Traffic is an example of ‘the tragedy of the commons’, a rather gloomy theory about the difficulty of cooperation. It’s about how shared, free resources get overused, to the point that everyone loses out. 

For example, we would all benefit if there was less road traffic, and less pollution. However, if one person stopped driving completely, the overall situation would hardly improve at all. And driving is very convenient. So, if you’re being self-interested about it, the best thing to do is drive as much as you want, and hope that other people show more restraint. 

There are plenty of other examples, including over-fishing, over-use of antibiotics, and NHS GPs’ waiting lists. Plus, of course, carbon emissions. They’re all real problems, and they all fit neatly with a certain view of our species: as basically self-interested individuals. It’s been argued that self-interest isn’t the same as selfishness. But there’s a fair amount of overlap.

Of course, the extreme version of that view is clearly false. It’s easy to think of examples of benevolence, big and small. But there’s one type in particular I’d like to talk about, because it gives an insight into why people do nice things.

It’s a phenomenon I think economists would call an ‘overjustification effect’, but which you could call ‘irrational benevolence’. The idea is that sometimes people are less willing to do good deeds if they get paid for them.

This comes up in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational. He tells a story about some lawyers who were asked to offer cut-rate legal services to retired people, and refused. They were then asked to do it for free, and ‘overwhelmingly, the lawyers said yes’.

He has another story about a martial-arts master who’d been giving free lessons. After a while his students decided it was unfair, and offered to pay him. ‘The master calmly replied that if he charged them, they would not be able to afford him,’ Ariely writes. As with the lawyers, no money was better than not much.

I found another example in Stuart Sutherland’s book Irrationality, about a study in which 1,200 people were asked to donate blood. Some were offered $10, others weren’t. “Many more” of the unpaid group said yes, apparently. 

The blood-donation issue is disputed territory – it feels like most things are in economics – but the basic idea is very believable. It’s about how money distorts the way we think about benevolence.

This is how Ariely explains it: ‘We live simultaneously in two different worlds – one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rules.’ Bringing in money pushes a situation from one world to the other – which is not necessarily an advantage.

If you start getting paid for something, you lose the powerful social motivation: that it feels nice to do something nice. And you lose the sense of ‘reciprocity’ – that you’ve done someone a favour, and now they owe you one. There may also be a status thing: people will think differently about you if they hear about your good deeds.

It’s easy to understand how, in a small village, these might be powerful motivators: you see the same people every day, and they’ll remember the things you’ve done for them. You’re building a local community.

What’s really amazing, though, is that this still works over the internet. Volunteers – by writing for Wikipedia and contributing to open-source software, for example – will help people who they’ve never met, and never will meet. They’ll do it because it feels good, and because they hope others will do the same. And that hope is usually justified. 

Of course, the gloomy stuff about the tragedy of the commons is still true. But it’s also not as bad as it could be: think of all the people who get public transport, or avoid eating fish, or recycle, or suffer through a bad cold rather than bother a doctor.

I feel like that about the people who take the time to write reviews on Movem, just to contribute towards solving a big-scale social problem. You’re all proof that a tragedy-of-the-commons situation doesn’t necessarily end in tragedy.


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Peter Ramsey
May 25th 2017