An experiment in Pakistan finds that training decision makers in the benefits of empathy cultivates prosocial behaviour in the lab and the field
According to a recent survey, 70% of bureaucrats in Pakistan reported perks and privileges — rather than public service — as being the main reason for their joining the bureaucracy. This is consistent with qualitative accounts of bureaucrats in the country exhibiting a lack of empathy, concern, and regard towards the citizens they are purported to serve. Shifting these attitudes has been a priority of the government of Pakistan. In a multi-year cooperation with an elite bureaucrat training facility in Pakistan, our research team explored effective ways of training bureaucrats in Pakistan to be more prosocial.
Prosociality – or behaviour that benefits others or the society as a whole – is critical in areas like contract enforcement, the management of commons, public goods provision, establishing an effective rule of law, and administering efficient governance in societies (Knack and Keefer 1997, Fehr and Gächter 2002, Guiso et al. 2009, Deming 2017). This raises a key policy question of how to optimally cultivate prosocial behaviour.
Peter Singer, “one of the most influential ethicists alive” (Goldhill 2016), has argued that prosocial behaviour can be cultivated by highlighting utilitarianism – the principle that one should evaluate actions by the utility it creates for oneself or the society (Singer 2015).
We horse race Peter Singer’s principle of effective altruism against Carol Dweck’s malleability of self – a psychological school of thought that argues that prosocial behaviour can be induced by emphasising the malleability of the self, i.e. recognising that prosocial traits are mutable and subject to growth.
The group assigned to the Singer-inspired utilitarian treatment displayed greater altruistic behaviours to the tune of 0.4–0.6 standard deviations, or a 33% increase over the placebo means. This group doubled the number of orphanage visits, blood donations, and the use of more socially cohesive language on social media. In contrast, we find no effect of emphasising the malleability of the self relative to the control group.
The elite bureaucrats of Pakistan
We studied newly inducted elite bureaucrats as they participated in mandatory training workshops at a prestigious training academy. For this, we collaborated with the government of Pakistan’s training academy for elite bureaucrats responsible for running central administrative operations. The bureaucrats we trained are high-achieving policymaking individuals; only about 1% are chosen from thousands of exam-takers annually. They serve as advisors to the president, the prime minister, cabinet ministers, and governors.
The field experiment on training effective altruism
Motivated by this, in Mehmood, Naseer and Chen (2021), we collaborate with Government of Pakistan’s elite training facility to cultivate prosocial behaviour among these high-stakes decision-makers.
To build prosocial behaviour, we leverage recent economic insights on the increasing importance of soft skills – empathy in particular (Deming 2017). Perspective-taking or “putting oneself in another’s shoes” (Premack and Woodruff 1978) is called the ‘theory of mind’ by psychologists and ‘degree of strategic reasoning’ by economists.
Soft skills have been formally modelled to reduce coordination costs so that teams, organisations, and society work together more effectively, but there are three challenges: measurement of soft-skills (such as coordination), understanding the mechanisms (such as theory of mind that is critical in models of soft-skills), and identifying causal effects. Our paper makes progress on all three challenges.
Lab and field results
We show that training high-stakes decision makers in the utility of empathy leads to increases in altruism, perspective-taking, and honesty. We measure perspective-taking in a competitive interactive setting in the form of the ‘beauty contest’ or ‘guessing game’ (Nagel 1995), which is a game akin to ‘rock, paper, scissors’. Recent studies have documented that high performance in these strategic dilemmas is associated with neural activity in the medial prefrontal cortex associated with successful mentalising (Coricelli et al. 2009). We measure honesty in the die-rolling game (or ‘lying game’) (Abeler et al. 2019, Gneezy et al. 2018). Honest civil servants are important for strong governance, executing fiduciary duty, and following the rule of law.
In addition to the altruism documented in laboratory measurements (in the form of donations made to each other and to charities), we also observe evidence consistent with effective altruism. We solicit blood donations via actual volunteers at a prominent blood bank, and find that blood donations did indeed increase, but only when participants were informed that their exact blood type was needed (see Figure 1). This is consistent with them mentalising whether the blood donation would actually be useful to others. Cooperation and coordination in strategic dilemmas also increase as do orphanage visits in the field, even after four months following the intervention.
Figure 1 Impact on blood donations
A) Matching blood type requested
B) Generic blood type requested
Note: The figure provides average blood donations for the four randomly assigned groups along with the associated confidence intervals. Panel A provides averages on randomly assigned truthful requests for blood donations of bureaucrat’s matching blood type. Likewise, Panel B provides averages on truthful requests for blood donations of generic blood type.
Results from social media feeds
Finally, we observe a shift in language use on social media; the use of “we” versus “I” and “us” versus “them” among the utilitarian group nearly doubles relative to the control group, particularly in phrases associated with social cohesion. These measurements are novel in establishing data linkages between lab behaviours and administrative data, and field behaviours like blood donations, orphanage visits and changed language on social media. They are also novel in substance, demonstrating that training bureaucrats in the utilitarian value of empathy impacts theory of mind or perspective-taking in strategic dilemmas.
We found that training high-stakes decision makers in the utility of empathy elevated their prosocial behaviour. Laboratory measures of altruism, charitable donations, cooperation, coordination, honesty and theory of mind in strategic dilemmas were all impacted. The effects are persistent with the increase in blood donations – but only when the specific blood type matching the individual was requested – and orphanage visits and prosocial language used on social media were also impacted with effects observed for four months after the training.
Although a lot of important work has focused on childhood interventions, and even though some work on workplace-based programmes that teach character skills have made important strides, no randomised controlled trial currently exists to train prosocial behaviour in adults using different schools of thought (Kautz et al. 2014).
We show that empathy can be enhanced even among adults, which is consistent with evidence that the adult brain continues to be plastic (Duffau 2014) and recent evidence of cognitive behavioural therapy impacting outcomes for adults in Liberia (Blattman et al. 2017). This intervention is time efficient as well as cost effective and can be delivered online. It involves negligible opportunity cost of time compared to any known randomised controlled trial on the formation of prosociality. The principles of effective altruism may be an organising theory for effective cohesion policies amid fragility, corruption, conflict, and violence in many developing countries.
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