Combatting Antisocial Behavior

The Freakanomics blog is worth subscribing to, if you haven’t already. Via it comes word of a neat experiment: in the psychology department coffee room at Newcastle University, prices for tea and coffee were posted on the wall, and an “honesty box” (i.e., in which to place your payment) was set nearby. This sort of experiment is fairly common, but the twist was that, in some weeks, a photo of flowers appeared above the price list. In other weeks, it was a pair of human eyes, staring directly at the person reading the price list. In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks.

This brought to mind my earlier post on the wonderful book Predictably Irrational, which noted that you could dramatically cut down on cheating in exams if you simply asked students to recall the Ten Commandments before they took a test, or — more pointedly — by reminding them of a school honor code. (You had to do this right before the test — it couldn’t happen weeks before and still retain the effect.)

A long time ago, I wrote an article for Gamasutra exploring the possible design of a feedback/rating system that would discourage antisocial behavior in MMOs. That system, which still may have merit, pales in comparison to the wonderful elegance and simplicity of these psychological tricks. And given that (1) one of the biggest challenges for online, anonymous systems like MMOs (and LIVE) is antisocial behavior, and (2) companies are spending tens of millions of dollars on these systems (if not more), why aren’t more companies hiring psychologists and behavioral economists as consultants or full-time employees? The cost seems justified, given the potential benefits.

(Actually, I’ve heard of a few MMO developers hiring economists, but I think that most are focused on the optimization of in-game economies, as opposed to tackling anti-social behavior. There is a relationship between the two, but they are not equivalent.)

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