Trust and altruism in homeless populations: A recent field experiment

Access Community Action Agency

Based on a survey conducted by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, there were an estimated 3,383 people that were experiencing homelessness in Connecticut on January 23, 2018. This number represents a 25 percent decrease since 2007; however, it is still a reality for many people in the state.

A research team from the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ARE) recently conducted a field experiment attempting to quantitatively assess the level of trust, reciprocity and other important networks of relationships that exist within and toward the homeless community. The research team was composed of project primary investigator, Assistant Professor Nathan Fiala, graduate student Leticia Riva, as well as three undergraduate research assistants and me.

This research has important implications on program delivery and program implementation for social service providers in the State. We believe that we are the first research team to explore the level of social capital in this specific population quantitatively.

It might seem curious that this kind of research is being undertaken by an agricultural and resource economics department. Historically, agricultural economics began as a branch of economics interested in the study of land use; however, over time, it has become an applied branch of microeconomics that studies many diverse topics, including economic development. Fiala is my major advisor, and his main field of research is economic development. We undertook this project using the experimental tools that he has used in his previous development research.

Soup Kitchen
Space in Covenant Soup Kitchen where games were played

Behavioral games were the main experimental tool that we used in this research. To conduct our lab-in-the-field experiments, we partnered with the Covenant Soup Kitchen and Access Community Action Agency in Willimantic, who assisted us in the recruitment of our participants. During the last three weeks of the summer, we surveyed over 150 individuals who are currently receiving services from either of the two organizations. Each participant completed a survey, played three sets of behavioral games with our research team and received between $5 and $14 for participation. The amount of money participants received depended on 1) their decisions, 2) the decisions of a randomly assigned partner and 3) luck. The overall level of monetary giving was the behavioral game we played, as participants were instructed to pass money back and forth through the research team. By playing this type of game we are able to measure the trust level that exists between participants.

In the first game, each participant was given $3, and their partner was not given anything to begin. Their decision was how they wanted to split the $3 with their partner, and they could give any amount between zero and three dollars to their partner, in 50 cent increments. Given the amount of money that they gave to their partner, we as the research team, multiplied that amount by three. In this version of the game, their partner also had a decision and this decision was how much of the multiplied money that their partner gave to them they wanted to return.

The second game had an identical setup, except the partner would not be able to return any of the money that they had received. The structure of this game meant that whatever the individual initially decided to keep would be what they left with and whatever they chose to share would be what their partner would leave with.

Economists believe that the difference between the amount given in these two games represent the level of trust that an individual has toward their partner. We hold this belief because a participant in the first game might be inclined to give a higher amount hoping that the partner would return the favor; whereas, the second game shows strictly their level of altruism toward a partner.

It is important to mention that the individuals did not know who they were playing the game with, as the only information they were told about their partners was their partner’s current housing situation.

The third game each participant played was in the second role from the first game described above. Their decision in this game was how much they wanted to give back to their partner, based on the amount that their partner gave them initially.

The preliminary results from this experiment were presented at an ARE seminar on October 3, 2018.

These results will also be disseminated to our partner organizations in the coming months. In conversations we had with Access and Covenant prior to conducting the experiment, they mentioned observations that they had made about the recipients of their services. They were excited to test their observations based on the research. As a result, they may make changes to the way they communicate with their program recipients.

Research funds were provided by the Storrs Agricultural Experiment Station Hatch Research Program.

By: Thomas Krumel