Does Social Cooperation Affect Macroeconomic Performance? Research Project

Is Identity-Biasing a Shortcut to Cooperation?

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Principal Investigator: Dr Yvan Russell

Yvan Russell is an evolutionary psychologist at Middlesex University who studies the evolution of expert intelligence in humans and animals. He is developing a multi-disciplinary research programme covering the topics of cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, cross-cultural and developmental psychology, the psychology of religion, statistics, anthropology, and behavioural economics.

Project Summary

In this project, we aim to investigate the influence of identity on cooperation. We as people routinely ascribe identities to ourselves and others. Identity is a powerful determinant in our social decision making, and we use identity-categories as a guide for deciding whether to cooperate with others. Fundamentally, a strong shared identity is a key incentive to cooperate (e.g. same religion or nationality). Conversely, a lack of shared identity is a key incentive not to cooperate.

Yet, identity is complex. We all categorise ourselves according to an endless list of criteria (everything from the broader categories, such as “being human” – to the narrower categories, such as “being a Liverpool supporter,” or “sharing an office”). This project will explore the ways that cooperation can be encouraged by pitching messages at the right level (micro/meso/macro) of inclusiveness to stimulate cooperation.

The well-known public goods game (PGG) will be used, where small groups of five play 30 rounds and are given a small amount of money and then given a choice: (1) contribute to the public pool, or (2) keep the money. If any player contributes to the public pool, then that amount is multiplied by 1.5 and distributed evenly amongst all players in the group.

In our experiment, there will be four conditions with twenty participants in each. Before the PGG, the participants are given a questionnaire that is designed to “prime” them into identifying with a group through a series of leading questions (cf. Benjamin et al., 2007). The conditions are:

  • Macro-identity (the questionnaire emphasises the shared humanity of all players).

  • Meso-identity (the questionnaire emphasises the shared student status of all players).

  • Micro-identity (the questionnaire emphasises that all players are participating in the same study at the same time).

  • Control (the questionnaire has no identity prime).

The procedure in all conditions will end with an identity questionnaire and debriefing. The prediction, informed by previous literature, is that a mesolevel of identity will prime higher levels of cooperation than the macro/micro-level and control group (possibly with the ordering: meso > macro > meso > control).

The interdisciplinarity of this project derives from the blend of social psychology and behavioural economics. The research design incorporates methodology from both disciplines. Theoretically, the project is informed by insights from psychology, economics, and anthropology. The results of this project can be policy-useful because it may elucidate the most effective level at which to pitch messages about inclusiveness. This can feed into policies which have the aim to promote cooperation between strangers in society. A very simple example might be a public campaign to reduce litter. Will litter be reduced more effectively in an appeal to clean up the planet, or clean up the neighbourhood?

Pertaining to macroeconomic questions, this project focuses on the formation of social interaction. In between microeconomics (the study of individual decisions) and macroeconomics (the study of broad trends) lies the middle level of social interaction. When individuals make economic decisions, it is through a filter of their social preferences and social constraints. It seems plausible that “identity factors” exert a strong influence via this “mesoeconomic” level and this upwardly influences the observed macroeconomic patterns.



Benjamin, D. J., Choi, J. J., & Strickland, A. J. (2007). Social identity and preferences. Working paper 13309. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.


Is Identity-Priming a Short-Cut to Cooperation?

Yvan I. Russell  | September 22, 2020