Disentangling material, social, and cognitive determinants of human behavior and beliefs

Denis TverskoiAndrea GuidoGiulia AndrighettoAngel SánchezSergey Gavrilets

In social interactions, human decision-making, attitudes, and beliefs about others coevolve. Their dynamics are affected by cost-benefit considerations, cognitive processes (such as cognitive dissonance, social projecting, and logic constraints), and social influences by peers (via descriptive and injunctive social norms) and by authorities (e.g., educational, cultural, religious, political, administrative, individual or group, real or fictitious). Here we attempt to disentangle some of this complexity by using an integrative mathematical modeling and a 35-day online behavioral experiment. We utilize data from a Common Pool Resources experiment with or without messaging promoting a group-beneficial level of resource extraction. We first show that our model provides a better fit than a wide variety of alternative models. Then we directly estimate the weights of different factors in decision-making and beliefs dynamics. We show that material payoffs accounted only for about 20\% of decision-making. The remaining 80\% was due to different cognitive and social forces which we evaluated quantitatively. Without messaging, personal norms (and cognitive dissonance) have the largest weight in decision-making. Messaging greatly influences personal norms and normative expectations. Between-individual variation is present in all measured characteristics and notably impacts observed group behavior. At the same time, gender differences are not significant. We argue that one can hardly understand social behavior without understanding the dynamics of personal beliefs and beliefs about others and that cognitive, social, and material factors all play important roles in these processes. Our results have implications for understanding and predicting social processes triggered by certain shocks (e.g., social unrest, a pandemic, or a natural disaster) and for designing policy interventions aiming to change behavior (e.g. actions aimed at environment protection or climate change mitigation).

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