Article | Management Science | January 2012

Paying to Be Nice: Consistency and Costly Prosocial Behavior

by Ayelet Gneezy, Alex Imas, Amber Brown, Leif D. Nelson and Michael I. Norton


Building on previous research in economics and psychology, we propose that the costliness of initial prosocial behavior positively influences whether that behavior leads to consistent future behaviors. We suggest that costly prosocial behaviors serve as a signal of prosocial identity and that people subsequently behave in line with that self-perception. In contrast, costless prosocial acts do not signal much about one's prosocial identity, so subsequent behavior is less likely to be consistent and may even show the reductions in prosocial behavior associated with licensing. The results of a laboratory experiment and a large field experiment converge to support our account.

Keywords: Research; Economics; Behavior; Welfare or Wellbeing; Perception; Performance Consistency; Power and Influence; Identity;


Gneezy, Ayelet, Alex Imas, Amber Brown, Leif D. Nelson, and Michael I. Norton. "Paying to Be Nice: Consistency and Costly Prosocial Behavior." Management Science 58, no. 1 (January 2012): 179–187.