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«The Behavioral Logic of Collective Action: Partisans Cooperate and Punish More Than Nonpartisansp ops_768 595.616 Oleg Smirnov Stony Brook University ...»

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Political Psychology, Vol. 31, No. 4, 2010

doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00768.x

The Behavioral Logic of Collective Action: Partisans

Cooperate and Punish More Than Nonpartisansp ops_768 595..616

Oleg Smirnov

Stony Brook University

Christopher T. Dawes

University of California, San Diego

James H. Fowler

University of California, San Diego

Tim Johnson

Stanford University

Richard McElreath

University of California, Davis Laboratory experiments indicate that many people willingly contribute to public goods and punish free riders at a personal cost. We hypothesize that these individuals, called strong reciprocators, allow political parties to overcome collective action problems, thereby allow- ing those organizations to compete for scarce resources and to produce public goods for like-minded individuals. Using a series of laboratory games, we examine whether partisans contribute to public goods and punish free riders at a greater rate than nonpartisans. The results show that partisans are more likely than nonpartisans to contribute to public goods and to engage in costly punishment. Given the broad theoretical literature on altruistic punishment and group selection as well as our own formal evolutionary model, we hypoth- esize that it is being a partisan that makes an individual more likely to be a strong reciprocator and not vice versa.

KEY WORDS: Partisanship, Public goods game, Collective action, Altruistic punishment, Strong reciprocity 595 0162-895X © 2010 International Society of Political Psychology Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, and PO Box 378 Carlton South, 3053 Victoria Australia 596 Smirnov et al.

Political parties are collections of individuals, so that virtually every- thing they do involves collective action, and they provide public goods for their members, since much of what they do affects many, if not all, partisans.—Aldrich (1995, 31) More than four decades has passed since Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action (1965) focused attention on partisan activity as the exemplary collective action problem. Yet today political scientists still ponder: why do indi- viduals engage in costly partisan activities when they could obtain more benefit by free riding on others’ partisan efforts? Slow progress on this question, however, is less a sign of stagnant scholarship than it is evidence of the richness of Olson’s puzzle. Indeed, if (1) individuals act according to rational self-interest and (2) the benefits of partisan activity can be consumed by those who do not provide them, then—as definitively stated by Olson—“the average person will not be willing to make a significant sacrifice for the party he favors, since a victory for his party provides a collective good” (1965, 164).

Individuals do engage in partisan activity, however, and some even choose to identify strongly with one political party. Thus, a central focus for political science is explaining why individuals engage in such behavior. Olson proposed that party activity will only result if the party is organized for some other purpose (Olson, 1965). For instance, we might attend a party meeting if it allows us to exchange beneficial automotive repair tips; but, if the meeting does not offer external benefits that compensate the costs of attendance, we will not attend. Similarly, others propose that individuals will engage in costly partisan activities if institutions alter the incentive structure of party participation (Aldrich, 1995, 21–22).

That is, if registering as a partisan—a costly activity—allows one to vote in a party primary (a collective action problem in itself), then individuals will do so if the benefits of voting outweigh the costs of registering. Such propositions, in sum, serve as contemporary political science’s explanation of why partisan activity exists: political parties provide sufficient compensation for self-interested individuals to incur the costs of engaging in partisan efforts.

That solution, however, appears dubious. For one, the costs and benefits of partisan activity are poorly specified, thus making it difficult to determine whether a personal benefit or an exogenous institution actually solves the collective action problem. Second, there exist instances in which partisan activities cost much more than the personal benefits they produce—or so most partisan volunteers would agree after spending four hours sealing envelopes for a same-party candidate from another district. For these reasons, explanations of partisan activity that focus on the profitability of partisanship appear incomplete.

With that inadequacy noted, the question remains: Why do people engage in partisan activities? One possibility is that people do not maintain self-interested preferences and, thus, they ignore the collective action problem inherent in partisan efforts. For the past decade, scholars in anthropology and economics have Partisanship and Punishment 597 found increasing evidence that humans hold such preferences. Specifically, humans appear to follow the directives of strong reciprocity (Bowles & Gintis, 2002; Camerer & Fehr, 2006). Strong reciprocity consists of two behavioral predispositions: (1) a willingness to contribute to public goods and (2) an enthusiasm for sanctioning those who fail to contribute to public goods (Bowles & Gintis, 2002, 425).





In this study, we examine whether individuals who identify themselves as partisans (and thus, assumedly, engage in more partisan activity than nonpartisans) abide by the behavioral patterns of strong reciprocity more frequently than nonpartisans. We place laboratory participants in a series of experimental games in which they earn real money based on their choices. These games allow us to measure subjects’ willingness to contribute to a public good and, as well, their willingness to sanction those who do not contribute. Our results show that partisans, as opposed to nonpartisans, are more likely to be strong reciprocators. Specifically, partisans contribute to public goods at higher rates than nonpartisans, and they use punishment to enforce cooperation more often than do nonpartisans. Moreover, our experimental design allows us to establish that partisan punishment is based upon norm enforcement motives (punishing the defectors) rather than egalitarian motives (punishing the rich; Dawes et al., 2007)—this distinction is impossible to make in a classical public goods game with punishment since the defectors and the rich are the same people in the classical setting (Fowler, Johnson, & Smirnov, 2005).

In addition to offering evidence that contributes to an understanding of why political parties exist despite collective action problems, the results reported here also contribute to the literature on partisanship. Not only do we show that partisans have distinctive behavioral patterns in social dilemmas outside the domain of voting and elections, but we also offer evidence that yields insight into the decline of partisanship (Abramson & Aldrich, 1982) and the tendency of partisans to view politics through an ingroup/outgroup lens (Greene, 1999).

Before presenting these findings, however, we first present a general theory of partisans as strong reciprocators. With our theory presented, we outline laboratory procedures designed to test our theory, and we examine the relationship between partisanship and behavior in these laboratory games. With our results, we present a number of robustness checks and then conclude with a discussion of how our findings reshape the way political science should contemplate both collective action and partisanship.

Partisanship and Strong Reciprocity

Political scientists have traditionally defined partisanship as a loyalty to one political party that shapes an individual’s electoral behavior in a lasting manner (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1960). As such, partisanship serves as a set of individual principles guiding broad evaluation of political candidates and events (Key, 1966). Converse (1969) explains the origin of individual partisanship as a 598 Smirnov et al.

combination of intergenerational transmission from parents (especially, one’s father) and social learning. Partisanship is acquired in one’s youth and remains stable, if not fixed, over one’s lifetime. Moreover, strength of partisanship is increasing with age: Young adults are weak partisans while the elderly exhibit stronger partisanship (Converse, 1976). Empirical evidence supports these claims by showing that both intergenerational transmission and developmental learning contribute to an individual’s partisanship (Cassel, 1993).

It is important to note that partisanship is often equated with party identification, which Miller (1991) points out is not technically correct. Party identification is a relatively narrow concept that describes an individual’s self-identification with a certain political party; the concept thus omits general behavioral attributes of partisans. Contrary to partisanship, party identification may in fact be shortlived given individual social and political experience (Fiorina, 1981). As Franklin and Jackson (1983) put it, party identifications are “a person’s accumulated evaluations from previous elections and are dependent upon the events and the actions of political leaders during these elections and during subsequent terms in office” (p. 968). Party identification must converge with core values, beliefs, and preferences over issues (Franklin, 1984). We agree with Miller (1991), Converse and Pierce (1987), as well as the myriad other scholars who argue that partisanship is a broader construct with multiple facets. In addition to developmental learning and intergenerational transmission, partisanship also emerges as a complex transition to general consistency in one’s behavior (loyalty to a party), political preferences, and expectations (Brader & Tucker, 2001). Given past scholars’ sound recognition that partisanship is a more complex phenomenon than party identification, we use a measure of partisanship that does not distinguish between partisans who identify with different parties.

Parting with past work, however, we want to examine differences between partisans and nonpartisans that extend beyond their electoral behavior. Previous scholarship offers evidence that warrants such an investigation. For instance, it is already well known that partisans are more likely to participate in politics (Verba et al., 1995), but recent laboratory experiments suggest that a willingness to donate money to anonymous recipients in the dictator game greatly increases the partisan motivation to vote (Fowler, 2006). Partisans also appear to use special cognitive information-processing mechanisms when making voting decisions (Lodge & Hamill, 1986); could such unique cognitive strategies lead partisans to act in a peculiar manner in other social situations? In addition, previous work fails to find statistically significant differences between partisans and nonpartisans when it comes to issue voting (Gant & Luttbeg, 1987); such results suggest that the instrumental value of partisanship is not just brand labelling or assistance in deciding which political candidate to choose.

Instead of solely guiding vote choice, partisanship may also signal (either intentionally or unintentionally) an individual’s willingness to provide and maintain public goods. That is, since political parties are in the business of providing Partisanship and Punishment 599 public goods (Aldrich, 1995), then we should expect partisans to exhibit a more pronounced tendency than nonpartisans to cooperate and punish in nonparty settings. For instance, one situation in which differences between partisans and nonpartisans might manifest is the public goods game, which is an extension of the n-person Prisoner’s Dilemma (see Ledyard, 1995, for a review of the public goods game literature). In the game, individuals possess personal resources and belong to a group that can pool resources in order to increase social welfare. However, contributing personal resources to the common pool also decreases the contributors’ payoffs (by the amount of their contribution), regardless of the behavior of other group members. Thus, since there is always an incentive to free ride, no strategically minded, self-interested individual will make a contribution to the common pool. As a result, no one contributes to the common pool and the group is forced to recognize that everyone would have received greater wealth had everyone contributed.

Cooperation, however, is possible. Recent laboratory work shows that when experimenters modify the public goods game to give participants the option of costly decentralized punishment, then contribution to the public good increases (Fehr & Gächter, 2002; Fehr & Fischbacher, 2004). In the game with punishment, any player can decrease the payoff of any other member(s) in the group at a personal cost. If targeted at a noncontributor, such punishment becomes altruistic since the individual pays a cost to punish, while the benefit (modifying the behaviour of noncontributors so that they contribute in future rounds) is distributed to other people.

Fehr and Gächter (2002) show that experimental participants punish defectors frequently and that this punishment promotes cooperation even when reputation building is not possible (no two players interact twice in the game). Field studies also support this research. Various forms of costly self-enforcement of cooperative behavior are customary in communities around the world (Henrich et al., 2006), and it is common to punish those who free ride on others’ personally costly efforts to use natural resources like fisheries, water, grazing lands, forests, and wildlife (see Ostrom, 1990, and Smirnov, 2007, for more specific references and examples). Given this theoretical and empirical evidence, it is now well established that “communities often are capable of enforcing norms because a considerable fraction of members are willing to engage in the costly punishment of shirkers without a reasonable expectation of being personally repaid for their efforts” (Bowles & Gintis, 2002 p. 425).

Individuals who provide and maintain public goods engage in strong reciprocity—that is, they return others’ behavior in kind even when they do not expect benefits from such actions (Gintis, 2000; Sethi & Somanathan, 1996).

Scholars have begun to uncover the mechanisms underlying strong reciprocity.



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