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The Role of Roles: The Impact of Roles On Behavior and Norms In A Lab Experiment

We all have various roles in society, including those of a father, mother, teacher, and leader. These roles come with specific expectations, norms, and behaviors that individuals must confront and fulfill. The purpose of this study was to examine the impact that roles have on shaping behavior and norms in social contexts. Building on previous literature on leadership (e.g., G├Ąchter et al. 2009, 2012, 2018), which suggests that first movers can affect the behavior of others, we conducted laboratory experiments to investigate the effect of labeling a participant as a "Group Leader" on their behavior and that of others in a public goods game. Note that the only difference was the label or role assumed by the participant.

The first experiment compared the contributions of participants in two groups - one with a designated "Group Leader" and one with the same participant labeled simply as "Group Member 3". The results showed that participants did not contribute more when labeled as a "Group Leader," but group members were more likely to follow the "Group Leader" and make similar contributions. This suggests that the label created a focal point for the group and highlights the importance of the Group Leader's initial contributions, with low contributions from leaders leading to low group contributions and high contributions leading to higher levels of cooperation.

The second experiment aimed to explore the role of social norms in the behavioral change observed in the first experiment. Drawing on the social norms theories of Bicchieri (2009, 2016) and Kurpka and Weber (2013), we analyzed both the empirical (what people actually do) and normative (what people should do) expectations. In this experiment, new participants analyzed the behavior observed in the first experiment, with one group analyzing the "Group Leader" condition and the other group analyzing the control condition. The results indicated that participants expected the "Group Leader" to contribute more and for others to follow their lead. Finally, we adapted Krupka and Weber (2013) to directly measure other social perceptions associated with the role, and it was observed that people believe the leader has higher levels of responsibility and that participants should follow the leader.

These experiments demonstrate the significant impact that roles can have on behavior and norms in social contexts. They highlight that changing the context and providing a role can alter individuals' social perceptions, and people adjust their behavior accordingly. The findings have important implications for understanding how roles shape behavior and norms in various settings, such as organizations, communities, and groups. This study provides a deeper understanding of how roles shape behavior and norms and how these dynamics can be studied in controlled laboratory experiments. These results can be useful for organizations and groups looking to enhance the impact of roles on behavior and group performance.

Rafael Teixeira
University of Amsterdam


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