I do mostly think about things besides Freakonomics (my first two posts notwithstanding). But since I got this bee in my bonnet about the climate chapter I’ve been watching their blog to how they would respond to the avalanche of criticism. And I came across a gem today that shows why you should never trust a freakonomist, or at least why you should worry about one who took Daniel Hamermesh‘s “500-student principles [of microeconomics, I hope] indoctrination class” at the U of Texas.
Hamermesh tells us that he ran a modified prisoner’s dilemma experiment in his class. Students could collude and split $20 evenly, but had to play their moves in secret. There were eight players. Seven tried to cooperate. One student (“bless her heart”) screwed them and got the whole $20. The other seven students booed her. And here the gem. Hamermesh writes, “But I got the class to join me in applauding her, as she was the only one who understood the game.”
Call me naive, but it sounds to me like the seven screwees understood just fine. Mr. Hamermesh changed the rules ex post facto. I doubt he said ex ante, “you can collude, but know that you will be applauded by hundreds and your heart will be blessed to thousands if you defect.” They thought they lived in a world with the usual normative sanctions, and they were doing what they could to make sure she behaved the next time around. They knew they’d see each other again. They knew she might need to borrow class notes someday. Yet he — in a position of authority with some power to affect norms — sanctions the cooperators by calling them suckers and enlists the class, whose grades he controls, in that sanctioning? What’s he do when he sees a kid grab something from a playmate? Pat the grabber on the head and tell the grabbee to stand up and fight?
So I have to take back something I wrote in my last post. Freakeconomists do know that it is possible to change human behavior. And they do understand the power of social sanctions. They just don’t like sharing.