A new paper, recently published in the Journal of Public Economic Theory,  by Edward Cartwright, Anna Stepanova and Lian Xue, provides new insight on framing effects and pro-social behaviour.

To explain the issues involved consider a group of five people. Suppose that if three or more of them cooperate on a group task then they successfully provide a public good which benefits all. For instance, you could think of work colleagues collaborating on a project. If three or more put in effort then the project is a success for the business, and everyone is happy. There are two ways this scenario could be framed. It could be framed in the ‘positive’ way of if you contribute then the project could be a success. Or it could be framed in the ‘negative’ way of if you withdraw cooperation then the project will not succeed. Which framing do you think is most likely to lead to cooperation?

In the study we provide a theoretical model, based on Impulse Balance Theory, which predicts that cooperation will be highest in the positive, public good frame. Moreover, the size of this framing effect is predicted to depend on the return to the project. If the return from the project is high then the framing effect is likely to be small – it does not matter if the positive or negative frame is used. If the return from the project is low then the framing effect will be large – here the positive frame should be better to promote cooperation. We ran experiments in both the UK and China to test these predictions and found support for them. So, if you want to get people to cooperate better to frame things in a positive way. This is most likely because contributing generates warm glow.