[W]e find strong evidence that many people’s attitude toward voluntary cooperation is conditional on other people’s cooperation… Moreover, the fact that many people contribute more the more others contribute also speaks against pure altruism explanations, because they predict that people reduce their own contributions when informed that others already contribute to the public good.
Basically, the paper argues (and justifies through a survey of experimental evidence) that a majority of people are ‘conditional cooperators’ who cooperate in community projects (voting, paying taxes, charity work, etc.) if and only if other people cooperate. If they think others are ‘defecting’ (i.e., not cooperating) then they will stop cooperating as well.
The paper also has some more detailed observations that come out of the experimental work; among them that voluntary cooperation is fragile; group composition matters (i.e., groups with more conditional cooperators will be healthier); and that ‘belief management’ maters- i.e., if people think that they are in a group with more conditional cooperators, that group will be more robust. None of these will come as a huge surprise to anyone who has been involved with volunteer communities, but still interesting to see it experimentally confirmed.
I’ve always suspected that something like this is the case, and that it explains in part why the GPL is so successful, since it uses copyright to force cooperation and penalize defection, and (importantly) makes a clear public statement that that is the case, which serves a signaling function (everyone in the community knows these are the ground rules) and a filtering function (people who aren’t interested in collaborating don’t join as much as they join other groups.)
The paper is only 25 pages and fairly readable; if you’re interested in the dynamics of volunteerism I recommend it.
Those of you who aren’t into economists and their fancy ‘measurements’ may also want to look at this related early paper, which is somewhat dated (the concept of low and high authoritarians is sort of discredited at this point) but still possibly of interest in explaining some of the psychological mechanisms at work here.
(Came to this by way of this paper on tax evasion, which looks to have many other interesting citations that I should investigate once exams are done. Only Telecoms left…)