Current Projects

Dual evolutionary foundations of political ideology (with Quentin Atkinson, Chris Sibley, Scott Claessens, Kyle Fischer and Guy Lavendar-Forsyth

What determines our views on taxation and welfare, crime and healthcare, military spending and climate change? And why do opinions about these seemingly disparate aspects of our social lives coalesce the way they do? There is growing evidence that political attitudes and values reflect enduring individual differences along two ideological dimensions, one expressing a desire for group conformity versus individual autonomy, and another a desire for social dominance versus cooperation. In this project, we will test the possibility this ideological variation is shaped by two corresponding human social drives manifest in behavioural economics – the drive to punish those who violate group norms and the drive to cooperate even at personal cost. Using validated economic games and survey measures from New Zealand and urban and rural Vanuatu we will systematically investigate a) whether general patterns of social behaviour predict political ideology, and b) whether these relationships hold across societies that differ markedly in scale, market integration and cultural background. This work, which is unique in ambition and scope, promises new insight into why people hold the political beliefs they do and how culture and basic human social drives interact to shape the politics that both unites and divides us.

Decision Markets (with Thomas Pfeiffer and Pansye El-Kashef)

Imagine a researcher who has the choice between several experimental designs to investigate a proposed effect. To find the design that has the highest chance to succeed, the researcher would like to harness the expertise of the research community. Moreover, the researcher would like to provide incentives to those experts providing the most accurate advice. How can such incentivized and “crowd-sourced” decision-making be implemented? Decision markets have been put forward as promising mechanisms for such decision-making problems. To select among several mutually exclusive actions, first, forecasts about the expected future consequences of each action are elicited from the participating experts. This step works similar to forecasting in incentivized prediction markets. Second, a decision rule is used to select an action based on the forecasted consequences. Once the consequences of the selected action are observed, they are used to provide incentives for the forecasts elicited in the first step. Because only one among the possible actions can be taken, it is not possible to evaluate all the forecasts made in the first step. To nevertheless maintain proper incentives in the forecasting step, the decision rule is stochastic, and the payoffs are adjusted based on the probabilities used in the decision rule. Since proper decision markets have been described only recently, there is – despite a fascinating range of potential practical implementations – only very little empirical knowledge on this topic.

Who wants to be a politician? Evidence from Village Councils (Gram Panchayats) in West Bengal (with Francesca Refsum Jensenius, Pushkar Maitra, Vegard Iversen)

This study is motivated by two questions: First, what are the attributes of those who choose to seek political office? Second, does length of tenure in political office tend to make people more dishonest? The “negative selection hypothesis” suggests that it is the inherently dishonest that seek to enter office, in the expectation of earning political rent. Alternatively, the “positive selection hypothesis” posits that those who enter politics are more idealistic than ordinary citizens and wish to make a difference. But with greater exposure to politics, they become more cynical and self-serving. We use survey and experimental data from politicians and regular citizens from rural West Bengal to address these questions. We find evidence that compared to regular citizens, neophyte politicians are more honest, trusting, fair-minded and express greater faith in political institutions and processes. But this idealism wears off with time in office. Experienced politicians are more cynical and less honest than incoming ones.

Inequality, political ideology and punitiveness of justice systems (with abhijit ramalingam, brock stoddard, michalis drouvelis, quentin atkinson and scott claessens)

It is well-documented that when it comes to physical quality of life or different measures of social capital, such as inter-personal trust, countries with high income inequality fare much worse than those with greater equality. It also appears that unequal societies punish law-breakers much more harshly; both in terms of higher incarceration rates and/or longer prison terms. However, much of this evidence is correlational; it is unclear as to whether it is inequality that leads to lower social capital or vice versa. In this project, we use incentivized laboratory experiments to study of some of these questions. We will rely on the well-known public goods paradigm to study issues of trust and social cooperation. The public goods game represents a social dilemma posing a conflict between cooperating for the sake of the common good and free-riding in one’s own self-interest. We create equal/unequal societies via manipulating the endowments given to participants in the game. We then investigate the impact of such quality/inequality on (1) the degree of social cooperation in those societies and (2) how these societies go about choosing the degree of punitiveness of their social justice systems. We also elicit participants’ degree of economic and social conservatism and explore how these political ideologies interact with support for harshness (or lack thereof) of justice systems.