What drives individualism and competitiveness as opposed to collectivism and cooperation? Leibbrandt, Gneezy and List have a great paper studying this question with an ingenious experiment. LGL study two types of fishermen in Northeastern Brazil. The two types live within ~50km of one another but one type are lake fishermen and the other sea fishermen. Lake fishing favors individual fisherman in small boats while sea fishing favors team production on larger boats.
LGL ask the fisherman to participate in a simple experiment, throw 10 tennis balls into a bucket. The participants choose how they are paid, 1 monetary unit per successful attempt or 3 units per successful attempt if they have more successes than an unknown competitor (chosen randomly and without their knowledge to avoid social effects; in case of a tie they are paid 1 unit per success). Fishermen could earn 1-2 days of income for less than an hour of work depending on how successful they were and the payment scheme chosen.
Perhaps you won’t be too surprised to learn that 45.6% of the lake fishermen chose to compete compared with just 27.6% of the sea fishermen. What makes the paper great is all the secondary tests the authors do to understand this result at a deep level. The result, for example, is not due to differences in throwing ability or risk preferences.
You might suspect that the different choices about whether to compete or not are driven by cultural differences. But that too is incorrect. The authors, for example, show that women–who do not fish in either the sea or lake villages–do not show differences in the choices to compete (both chose to compete less than the men but at the same rates in lake or sea villages).
Instead, what the authors demonstrate is that differences in the choice to compete or not appear to be learned differences. First, the lake villagers who chose to compete are among the most successful lake fishermen–that is, they have learned that competition increases income. In the sea villages there is no correlation between choosing to compete and fishing income.
Finally, and most tellingly, there is a dose-response relationship between competition and learning. In particular, the choice to compete or not increases with fishing experience with the experienced lake fisherman choosing to compete more and the experienced sea fishermen choosing to compete less (as shown at left).
The paper appears on the surface to be affirming the importance of cultural differences and to be agreeing with the kind of literature that stresses the idea of self-interest and individualism as western and contingent. Yet, in fact, the paper is suggesting that at a deeper level so-called cultural differences may not be transmitted down through the generations but instead are learned responses to very particular production techniques. Note that such learned responses may change rapidly as production techniques change and that the sea and lake villages are both unusual in the modern world in relying on just one dominant production technique with few other options for learning.
More generally, learning needs to be added to incentives, genetics, and culture as an independent yet entangled determinant of choice.