— The importance of forgiveness, in a list of 18 values as ranked by a sample of American managers.  (Source)

There’s evidence to believe that people value forgiveness in their personal lives.  But when it comes to economic contexts, they seem to leave that value at the door.  I’ve been reading quite a bit recently about the way that our expectations, judgments, and moral reasoning seem to differ when we think of our interactions as belonging to the ‘work’ domain.

For instance, in a wonderful experiment by Liberman, Samuels and Ross (source), they had participants play an n-move prisoner’s dilemma (PD) game.  In all cases, the structure of the game was exactly the same:  The payoffs, rules and procedures were identical for all participants.  But some participants were told that the game was called “The Community Game”, while others were told the title was “The Wall Street Game”.  The players in the “Community” game cooperated more than two thirds of the time; players in the “Wall Street” game cooperated less than a third of the time.

In a series of recent studies, Sanford Devoe has uncovered what I view as a related set of findings.  When people are charged with dividing time or food, they tend to support egalitarianism.  But when they’re charged with dividing the same value in money, their egalitarianism disappears (source).  And though people may be willing to volunteer their time to help others, the minute they start to think of themselves as ‘economic evaluators’, their willingness to volunteer plummets.  Just like the ‘Community Game’, all it takes is a subtle prime:  In one of the studies, willingness to volunteer dropped as a simple function of having read money or economics-related words from a list (source).

The idea that subtle cues can activate social versus economic behaviour is not new, of course:  Blau (Exchange and Power in Social Life, 1964) made the argument that different norms govern economic exchange and social exchange.  Associations in social exchange are “ends in themselves”, while in economic exchange, associations are means to other, self-serving ends.  And so, we expect different things out of each type of relationship.  In a social exchange relationship, Blau writes, ”…a time consuming service of great material benefit to the recipient might be properly repaid by mere verbal expressions of deep appreciation.”  In social exchange, it would be crass and might undermine the relationship to try to account and fully repay the cost of a favour received in material terms.  But in an economic exchange relationship, the same accounting and repayment might be entirely expected.

I think all this research bears considerably on the ongoing debate about so-called “social entrepreneurship”.  The usual distinctions used to separate firms from charities (for-profit vs non-profit, for instance) aren’t particularly useful when trying create a crisp definition of social entrepreneurship, as Ana Maria Peredo argues.  Perhaps we ought to give as much consideration to the distinct psychological differences between traditional and ‘social’ enterprise as we do to the traditional structural, strategic and regulatory ones.  It strikes me that the degree to which people in any given situation conceive of themselves as economic versus social actors could have a considerable impact on the choices they make and the behaviours they enact.

ResearchBlogging.org Kurzynski, M. (1998). The Virtue of Forgiveness as a Human Resource Management Strategy Journal of Business Ethics, 17 (1), 77-85 DOI: 10.1023/A:1005762514254

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