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Social Interactions and Giving


McConnell, Margaret Anne (2010) Social Interactions and Giving. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/ZP35-GR57.


This thesis presents four experimental studies addressing theories of social interactions and charitable contributions. Social interactions have been identified as an important nonmarket determinant of economic outcomes. My research provides theoretically motivated experimental evidence to advance our understanding of strategic communication and voluntary contributions.

I consider a model of communication in the presence of investment opportunities with uncertain returns and positive social externalities. The model predicts that welfare improving communication can only occur when individuals can communicate by sending a costly signal. I test this model with experiments. While the model predicts that individuals need to "burn money" in order to effectively communicate, in our experiments individuals overcommunicate when messages are free and undercommunicate when they are costly. Therefore, we do not see welfare improvements from costly communication.

In joint work with Jacob Goeree, Leeat Yariv, Tiffany Mitchell, and Tracy Tromp, we consider the relationship between social closeness and the tendency to be generous to others in an actual social network. We find that dictator offers are primarily explained by social distance: giving follows a simple inverse distance law. Our results suggest that social closeness is a more important predictor of generosity than individual demographic characteristics.

In another study conducted with Sera Linardi, we adapt Benabou and Tirole's (2006) model in order to address the role of honor, stigma and visibility on contributions of time. We consider the effect of excuses and monitoring on the willingness to volunteer in an experiment combining elements of lab and field. We find that removing available excuses for not volunteering significantly increases the willingness to volunteer without negatively affecting productivity.

In further work on charitable giving with Jacob Goeree and Antonio Rangel, we provide experimental evidence consistent with morally motivated charitable giving. We find that providing subjects with a suggested contribution amount increases the willingness to give and that framing the suggestion with moral language further increases contributions. However, moral framing language does not impact the share of individuals who make no contributions, suggesting that individuals may value contributions above a moral reference point differently from contributions below it.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:experiments, giving
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Humanities and Social Sciences
Major Option:Social Science
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Goeree, Jacob K. (advisor)
  • Yariv, Leeat (co-advisor)
Thesis Committee:
  • Goeree, Jacob K. (chair)
  • Yariv, Leeat
  • Rangel, Antonio
  • Snowberg, Erik
Defense Date:10 September 2009
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05282010-072910292
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:5875
Deposited By: Margaret McConnell
Deposited On:04 Jun 2010 17:25
Last Modified:08 Nov 2019 18:10

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