Getting a Leg Up or Pulling it Down? Interpersonal Comparisons and Destructive Actions: Experimental Evidence from Bolivia

Accumulating research has shown that individuals’ welfare is affected not only by the absolute amount of resources at their command but also, by their relative position vis-a-vis others. Individuals' concerns about their relative positions may influence individuals’ choices and affect their behavior. For example, upward interpersonal comparisons may spur individuals to reduce consumption gaps by increasing effort or investment to "catch-up" or by "pulling-down" others through destructive actions. "Pulling down" other more successful individuals may have both direct and indirect detrimental effects on productivity and efficiency. On one hand, welfare is reduced directly as the other’s output is destroyed and one’s resources are consumed. In addition, the threat of destructive actions may lead to lower levels of effort and investment. In order to empirically examine how interpersonal comparisons affect effort levels, the prevalence of destructive actions, and how the threat of destructive actions affect effort levels; I designed a set of behavioral games that build on the two-stage "money burning" game. I introduce a simple effort task in the first stage. Specifically, earnings depend on the number of beans individuals separate from a container full of beans and rice. The experimental games were carried out in Bolivia among 285 dairy farmers. I find that when destructive actions are not allowed, positional concerns matter for the bottom half of the earnings distribution. When rankings were revealed to the participants, those below the group mean earnings increased their effort by 7.5%. When I allow for destructive actions, 55% of people are willing to forego higher own-consumption in order to "destroy" others’ output; 58% were victims to destructive action and lost on average 34% of their earnings. There is an asymmetry in direction of destruction, 98.3% of the highest earners suffered some destruction, while only 23.7% of the lowest earners were victims to destruction actions. Finally, the threat of destructive actions reduced highest earners’ effort by 6%.

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Conference Paper/ Presentation
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JEL Codes:
D01 D03 D63
Series Statement:
Paper, ID 6178

 Record created 2017-04-01, last modified 2017-08-28

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