George Mason University's economics department is steadily becoming one of my favorite economics departments. Peter Leeson, on faculty in the department, has laid out a rational explanation for human sacrifice, followed by an examination of the upsides to being a wife-for-sale in Industrial Revolution-era England. And now this same department has conducted an experiment to examine whether people will pay to include everyone in a Christmas carol sing-along.
The study was ostensibly in service of testing Emile Durkheim and Friedrich Hayek's assertion that humans have a yearning for “encompassment,” that is, to work together as a group. It's the same impulse that kept us together as bands of hunter gathers, and also led to boy bands—or something like that. The point of the study is pretty abstract, but their methods are clear and the responses are adorable.
Subjects were divided into groups of three or four, and one person in each group didn't get to sing unless every one else in the group made a sufficient payment to let the non-singer join in.
In 47.4 percent of the decisions, the individual sacrificed a little something to achieve encompassment and let everyone sing. While people weren't willing to sacrifice every time, of the 99 subjects who participated in the experiment, 59 of them—59.6 percent—sacrificed cash at least once to achieve encompassment—a majority of subjects evinced some demand for encompassment.
The payment came out of the money that the subjects would otherwise be taking home as their payment, which makes it all the more remarkable just how frequently people were willing to chip in to make sure everyone got to sing. “We explained the situation very bluntly,” the study stated. “'Mark zero if all you care about is maximizing your cash payoff. Mark something other than zero if you are willing to pay to make it that everyone in the room will join together in the singing. It’s your choice.'”
The study pointed out that some of these people who participated in the study were “professional” study-participants, who were there with the specific intention to maximize their cash payoffs, which makes the fact that the majority would sacrifice even more significant. And their reasons for doing so were pretty hilarious too.
The responses were weighted—if only one answer was marked, it counted as one; if the subject marked two the answer counted as half, and so on. When asked why they sacrificed their own income in favor of encompassing the whole group, “it would be more fun if everyone sang” received 71.9 percent of the weight. Only 8.1 percent of the weight went to “Because I would be less self-conscious if everyone sang.”
Everyone in The Band sings, and everyone loves The Band. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The researchers also asked groups in which everyone had sung if the experience would have been less enjoyable if they hadn't paid to include everyone, and 20 out of 26 people responded that they were “glad that everyone joined in the singing,” and five were neutral. One, oddly, said it would have been more fun if the extra person hadn't joined in, and instead, I guess, had just sat there, which raises so many questions that have nothing to do with economics.
The GMU team acknowledged that this wasn't the end of inquiry. After all, they couldn't be sure that the “the more the merrier” principle wasn't coming into play. Seriously:
Given that there was only one possible-non-singer, the experiment did not operationally disentangle the demand for encompassment from the demand for simply 'more,' i.e., 'the more the merrier.' One way to accomplish this would be to have two possible-non-singers. In one variant of the experiment, subjects would pay for one of the non-singers to be able to sing (gratifying 'more the merrier,' but not encompassment), while in another variant they would pay for both of the non-singers to sing (gratifying both factors).
So what can one really conclude about human collectivist impulses? That's for the readers of the journal Rationality and Society to worry about.
Whether it's the magical synchronization of hearts and minds that comes with all joining in song, or proof of an inherent political impulse, the evidence serves the hypothesis of renowned collective psychologist Bobby McFerrin, that people have an impulse to sing together. Maybe the economics are still hazy, though.