Friday, April 22, 2011


This is the most bizarre paper I've read in a long time. As an economist I am usually really disturbingly good at inventing stories to justify observations, and in this case I have no earthly idea what is going on.

This is the experiment: There are two jars of marbles. One contains mostly red balls and a few blue balls, and the other is the opposite. One jar is chosen. Each person has to guess which of the two jars it is and they get paid if they guess right. The first three people have to guess without any information. They can see what the people before them guessed, but none of them get to draw a ball from the jar. After that, each person can either draw a ball or they can see what other people have guessed who didn't draw a ball. In other words, they can either get useful information or completely useless information about what their peers did.

No one in their right mind should choose to see what their peers did. Yet 34% do.

It gets even weirder when people aren't paid individually based on whether they guessed right, but instead everyone in the group gets paid the same amount if the majority guesses right, and nothing otherwise. In that case there is a danger that uninformed people will dominate the voting, so if you don't draw a ball, you should definitely vote against the uninformed people you find out about. Yet even more people (50%) choose not to draw a ball, and 60-70% of those vote with the crowd.

I would chalk it up to confusion but the authors make a pretty good effort to rule that out as the sole cause.

I can understand wanting to fit in when there's some social reason to, or no other reason not to, and of course I understand following the leader when you just don't want to bother thinking for yourself and that's a way to delegate logic. But these people are giving up significant amounts of money to follow random people they don't know who explicitly have no information!

I don't get it. I so thoroughly don't get it it's like an earthquake in the foundation of my understanding of psychology. Am I missing something obvious in my exhausted delirium right now?

I want the authors to run it again but explicitly ask people, afterwards, why they did what they did.

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