A very old paper of mine and Martin Leroch's has just got published in Homo Economicus. (Ungated, older version.) The topic is reciprocity between groups. Here's a quote from the intro, I've bolded the key point:
At first sight it appears straightforward that people take revenge against entire groups, not only against direct individual perpetrators, even in routine social and economic life. For instance, consumers buy fewer products from countries which they see as politically antagonistic (Klein and Ettensoe 1999, Leong et al. 2008). Further, on days after terrorist bombings in Israel, Jewish (Arab) judges become more likely to favor Jewish (Arab) plaintiffs in their decisions, and Israeli Arabs face higher prices for used cars (Shayo and Zussman 2011; Zussman 2012). On a political level, for instance, Keynes (1922) perceived the Treaty of Paris’ devastation of the German economy as an act of revenge, and quoted Thomas Hardy’s play The Dynasts: ‘‘Nought remains/But vindictiveness here amid the strong,/And there amid the weak an impotent rage.’’ In its most extreme case, revenge against groups may trigger violent intergroup conflict. After an argument between an Indian Dalit and an upper caste farmer, upper caste villagers attacked 80 Dalit families (Hoff et al. 2011). In Atlanta, 1906, after newspaper allegations of black attacks on white women, a group of white people rioted, killing 25 black men (Bauerlein 2001). In both cases, innocent people were made to suffer for the real or supposed crimes of others. Many field studies of intergroup violence report similar tit-for-tat processes, with harm to members of one group being avenged by attacks on previously uninvolved coethnics of the original attackers (Horowitz 1985, 2001; Chagnon 1988).
We started thinking about this back in 2009, I just looked up the email:
Reciprocity towards groups; that's a pretty important idea if it holds, right? (Think about wars, racial discrimination; patriotism...) I don't know if there's anything done in the area. But perhaps it's one for another experiment.As well as seeming important, it turned out there was basically nothing out there in economics, and only a few papers in psychology.
We ran not one but several experiments, polishing the treatment and figuring out "what works". (There's issues of multiple testing here, but I'll ignore that.)
Our final experiment had some interesting results, and we sent it off to a top journal. It was rejected. Then we sent it off to another journal and... it was rejected. And another, and another.... I was annoyed by this because I felt that this was an important topic that nobody had written about! After all, Chen and Li (2009) had got into the AER by doing a basic group identity experiment, the same thing psychologists had done for decades, and adding incentives.
Yeah, I was naive! There are lots of reasons for the paper not doing well, some good, some bad:
- The design was complex and hard to explain. We spent ages on multiple rewrites of our design section to make it clear what we had done.
- In addition, the design and methodology weren't perfect - we were both quite inexperienced. There are things I'd do differently. Of course, reviewers picked these up.
- Our topic fell between stools: it was an economic experiment on a fundamentally political topic. It is a sad reality that interdisciplinary work is not easy to publish.
- Relatedly: referees and academics are conservative. It is easier to answer a question they already consider important, than to introduce a new question and persuade them it is important. That's probably reasonable. The dominant themes of any literature are dominant for a reason.
- Chen and Li's AER paper did what I have since learned is important - it created a building block. It deserves its placement. I still think we were out there doing something quite new, but sometimes you have to lead the academic horse to water.
Here's a picture of the basic result, which I'm sure has been up on this blog before. The slope of the solid line shows subjects' "upstream reciprocity" towards a fellow group member of their most recent opponent in a public goods game. The dashed line is the control, showing reciprocity towards someone in a different group.