Social tipping and its potentially detrimental consequences in heterogeneous populations (With Sara Constantino, Elke Weber, Sonja Vogt and Charles Efferson)
For policymakers, exploiting social tipping has become an appealing mechanism for influencing collective behaviours, running from policy areas such as climate change to female genital cutting. This appeal is partly due to the idea that small but powerful interventions can spill over to the rest of a group or population and thus tip collective behaviours. However, the feasibility of spillovers and their welfare consequences might depend on specific conditions, such as the prior distribution of individual preferences, pre-intervention, and the magnitude and type of the tipping interventions. We test the empirical implications of these conditions in an online virtual laboratory setup with 1400 participants. Participants played coordination games in groups for multiple rounds. Payoffs were assigned, so participants were heterogeneous but faced incentives to coordinate. The treatments targeted participants depending on the pre-intervention preference distribution. Treatments also varied in how extensive the intervention was. Once participants had established a coordination norm, an intervention created pressure to tip to a new norm. We find pre-intervention heterogeneity to be a significant moderator of endogenous social change, with some situations dramatically limiting the effects of small-sized tipping interventions. Our experiment also found a counter-intuitive welfare effect conditional on the treatment. If small tipping interventions were effective, they reduced average welfare compared to an alternative treatment where tipping was ineffective. Our results suggest that the success of social tipping interventions dramatically depends on participant heterogeneities. Even if successful, social tipping can be detrimental to the welfare of participants in relevant situations.