The New York Times has a fascinating snippet on how cooperation with others to get a monetary reward is not influenced by the value of the reward, but by the numbers that describe it.
In the study, when the reward was described as rising from 3 cents to 300 cents cooperation increased – but when it was described as rising from 3 cents to 3 dollars, it had no effect.
The experiment was carried by psychologists Ellen Furlong and John Opfer who were interested in comparing how our reasoning is affected by the representation of value.
The researchers asked volunteers to take part in a behavioral test known as the prisoner‚Äôs dilemma, in which two partners are offered various rewards to either work together or defect.
The idea is that in the long term, the participants earn the most money by cooperating. But in any given round of play, they make the most if they decide to turn against their partner while he stays loyal. (The reward is lowest when both partners defect.)
When the reward for cooperation was increased to 300 cents from 3 cents, the researchers found, the level of cooperation went up. But when the reward went from 3 cents to $3, it did not.
We covered a study late last year that also found a similar effect: people were swayed more by higher numbers in adverts even when the alternative described exactly the same thing but using smaller units.