What motivates people to impose their view upon others?


Xianwen Chen and Øivind Schøyen

People participating in revolutions, elections, and civil society often exert a great deal of effort to align the world with their sense of fairness. However, the preferences of the people affected by these political activities often vary and prescribe mutually excluding policies. How does people’s motivation to impose their fairness view upon others relate to the fairness view of the affected? 

One motivation people might have, is that they believe the affected share their views of fairness and would like to live in a world aligned with those views. We define this type of motivation as non-paternalist.  Another explanation is that the fairness view of the affected is entirely irrelevant to the people imposing the policies. They would like to see their policies implemented due to a notion of how the world “ought” to be. We define this as paternalist motivation. What kind of motivation do people mainly have? We designed an incentivized online experiment to shed more light on this question.

In our experiment, we first ask what spectators perceive to be a fair way to distribute income in the following scenario. A pair of workers is assigned to identify which letter is next to a number on a list. Each worker is assigned a separate, independently drawn price between one cent and ten cents per correctly identified number-letter combination. The distribution alternatives are either full redistribution, where the two workers earn a payment equal to their combined earnings divided by two, or no redistribution, such that they are paid their individual earnings.

The spectators are then told that some workers have completed this task and asked how many of the workers they believe share their fairness view. They are then assigned a pair of workers that has completed a task identical to the one in the scenario. The spectators are given a choice to pay two cents to implement the option they report to be fair upon their pair of workers. If they do not pay, the distribution option they find to be the least fair is implemented upon the workers.

In the treatment session, spectators are informed about the true prevalence of their fairness view among the workers. The information is given after the spectators reported their expected prevalence but before deciding whether to pay to implement the distribution alternative, they find fair.

Most spectators exaggerate the number of workers sharing their fairness view. Thus, if spectators had non-paternalist motivation, one would expect that being given the information of the true prevalence would lower their willingness to implement their view.  However,  we find no support for this in our data and conclude that spectators did not have any non-paternalist motivation.

The spectators’ willingness to pay to have the redistribution they find fair implemented on the workers can be motivated in several ways. More generally, further study is needed to establish what drives the willingness to implement one’s views on groups. Possible motivations for this behavior could be a notion of how redistribution “ought” to be, or, a purely expressive behavior of one’s fairness view.

Since uncertainty remains about the participants’ motivation for implementing their redistribution preference, it is hard to draw policy recommendations from this work. Future research could reveal that the motivation to impose one’s view is orthogonal to concern for others. If so the research would generally support institutions putting further emphasis on respecting individual choices. The motivation could also be related to a perception of the welfare of the affected as perceived by the implementer. If so the research would favor a institutions guarding individual freedoms where there is no reason that any other party than the affected better understands the welfare of the affected.

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