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Reputation can lead to Good Behavior, Study Finds

Update Date: Jun 15, 2013 02:02 PM EDT

In a new study conducted by a team of researches who worked with Pacific Gas and Electric, a natural gas and electricity company based in California, discovered that people could be persuaded to do good if their reputations are at stake. This study found that when people are aware that others are watching their actions, good behaviors tend to take over, suggesting that people care a lot about how they are viewed within society. According to the researchers, this desire to be perceived as a good person is stronger than any cash incentive.

The researchers devised an experiment in order to see how people would come together and act in order to prevent a blackout. The researchers installed a device that could cut individual electric power at peak times. The researchers created an enrollment plan that would require participants to lower their use of electric-guzzling devices, such as air conditioners, while ensuring them that their enrollment would prevent system-wide power outages. People who did not participate would also benefit. The purpose of the experiment was to test whether or not people would sacrifice a little bit in order to ensure overall success. The study involved 2,413 participants.

The researchers found that when people felt that their neighbors were watching them, they were three times more likely to enroll. When researchers enlisted $25 dollars, they found that this cash incentive was not as powerful as reputation. People who believed that their neighbors would find out about their participation or lack-of participation were four times more likely to sign up in comparison to a simple cash incentive. Furthermore, researchers found that when participants were asked to use their real names as opposed to a pseudonym, they were three times more likely to participate.

"Observability really matters,' the co-author of the study, Moshe Hoffman said according to Time. Hoffman is a postdoc at the University of California San Diego. "It has a much bigger impact than offering financial incentives in terms of promoting good behavior."

Despite finding a link between reputation and participation, the researchers stated that values could also affect whether or not people cared about how they were viewed in the first place. If people did not care about what their neighbors thought, they might not participate as often. The researchers also stated that where people lived, ranging from cities to buildings, could affect how people participated as well. Regardless, the researchers found that reputation played a factor in how people behaved. 

A summary of the study can be found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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