SPI Working Paper Series

WP #: 113

Date: Dec 2014


Other Sources



Sign Me Up! A Model and Field Experiment on Volunteering

    Daniel Houser, Erte Xiao

    George Mason University
    Carneige Mellon University

We develop and model a two-stage incentivized intervention to promote pro-sociality. In the first stage, participants are incentivized to complete a compound task consisting of a targeted pro-social activity and a complement activity. In the second stage, participants are incentivized to complete repeatedly only the complement activity. The model predicts that, conditional on compliance with the first-stage compound task, intrinsic interest in the target activity is promoted regardless of compliance with the second-stage task. To test this we design and implement a field experiment on volunteering. The results are consistent with our model. Moreover, in the one year subsequent to our experiment, those who participated in our compound-task mechanism reported volunteering systematically more than those who participated in alternative mechanisms we investigated. Our approach has useful implications for promoting positive individual and social outcomes in many behavioral domains.

SPI Quick Look:
Committing to volunteering regularly may be challenging for people. A solution could be to provide incentives to commit. These incentives however may backfire if people fail to comply with their commitment. The reason is simple: often people infer what they like to do based on what they did before: if people miss a reward, they might be induced to believe that this is because the associated activity was not worth their time (e.g. I didn’t go to the gym and missed my reward, thus it must be the case that I do not need to exercise). This paper develops and tests the effectiveness of a simple two-stage mechanism that solves this problem: in the first-stage people are incentivized to complete a main task (e.g. volunteering) and a simple, complement task. Crucially, in the second phase people are incentivized only to complete (again) the complement task. Because the complement task is easy to complete, and because it was part of a compound task that involved volunteering, this reinforces a positive attitude toward the main task, inducing more volunteering in the long run.