Economic games in and out of the lab

Further to Charles' recent a post, an interesting article,
Collective Action in Action: Prosocial Behavior in and out of the Laboratory, by Michael Guervin and Jeffrey Winking in the recent American Anthropologist:

Experiments have become a popular method to study altruism and cooperation in laboratory and, more recently, in field settings. However, few studies have examined whether behavior in experiments tells us anything about behavior in the “real world.” To investigate the external validity of several common experimental economics games, we compare game behavior with prosocial behavior among Tsimane forager-horticulturalists of lowland Bolivia. We find that food-sharing patterns, social visitation, beer production and consumption, labor participation, and contributions to a feast are not robustly correlated with levels of giving in the economics games. Payoff structure and socioecological context may be more important in predicting prosocial behavior in a wide variety of domains than stable personality traits. We argue that future experimental methods should be tailored to specific research questions, show reduced anonymity, and incorporate repeat measures under a variety of conditions to inform and redirect ethnographic study and build scientific theory.

It's nice to see these compared empirically, rather than the usual debates in anthropology about experiments vs ethnography, which are quite hypothetical.




1 Comment

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 25 September 2008 (16:08)

    Nicolas called my attention to the conclusion, in which the authors claim that experimental games are a very useful technique that should still be used, even if the results do not correlate with anything in the real world. I wonder what reasons (other than scientific diplomacy) the authors have for making such a weird statement.