People want to be seen helping the climate

The global climate can be thought of as a public good. But how can we encourage people to invest their energies altruistically in its maintenance? This question was addressed experimentally by researchers from the Max Planck Institutes of Limnology in Plãn, and Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany. The test subjects were given the choice of spending money on a magazine advertisement meant to inform the public about basic rules of climate preservation and the consequences of climate-unfriendly behaviour. The result: people are more likely to work toward common goals when they are well-informed and when they receive public recognition for their good deed - which can be of as much value to them as money (PNAS, February 28, 2006).

Psychologists, sociologists, and game theorists have long looked at the relationship between altruism and egoism. A classic is one in which four subjects receive 10 euros each. In each round, they are allowed to put between 0 and 10 euros into a common pool of money without their fellow subjects knowing how high the sum is. The experimenter collects the contributions, doubles the amount, and then divides this money evenly among the players.

If everyone gives everything they have, they all get double as much back. But if only an individual player donates and others do not, then she loses half her contribution, and other players profit without the risk of loss. Normally, no one pays voluntarily into the pool; it is the only way of avoiding the high risk of loss.

The Max Planck researchers carried out a variation on this experiment. They told the players that their contribution would not be distributed back to them, but rather doubled and put into a magazine advertisement. The Max Planck Institute for Meteorology would inform the public about the condition and expectations for the global climate. In the advert there would be a list of simple but effective rules about how each person can reduce their carbon dioxide emissi

Contact: Prof. Manfred Milinski

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