Research in Progress

“Team Chemistry: Apologizing Beats Blaming on the Basketball Court” (with Russell Golman)

Apologizing to teammates for a mistake or blaming teammates for their mistakes superficially appear to be forms of cheap talk that theoretically should have no consequences, but responsibility exchange theory posits that these communications, which attribute responsibility for mistakes, impact the social image and self-image of both the communicator and the target of communication. As a result, these communications have implications for interpersonal relationships between team members, i.e., apologies and finger-pointing do have consequences.  We test whether team performance correlates with whether team members apologize for their own mistakes or blame each other, using an original dataset of on-court communications during professional basketball games.  We find that conditional on a mistake occurring and being communicated about, the probability that the communication takes the form of an apology (a blame) increases (decreases) with the performance of the team across the season.  This evidence lends support to the proposition that taking responsibility for mistakes rather than blaming others improves team chemistry and that team chemistry has a measurable impact on team performance.

“Fourth Party Punishment: When do people punish bystanders?” (with Lauren Kaufmann)

Recent events have suggested that humans abhor bystanders, i.e., those who observe a transgression but fail to punish the transgressor. This is apparent in the ousting of Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach, for failing to fire the assistant coach, who was an alleged child abuser, and in the passing of the “Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse Act” as a new law that outlaws the failure to report sexual abuse. This is an especially interesting phenomenon because, while punishing another person offers the benefit of enforcing norms, it is costly not just in terms of resources but also in what it could signal to others about the punisher, i.e., that they are antisocial and that they get some value from harming others. Despite this observation, very little research has examined the extent to which people are willing to punish bystanders and how this compares to the willingness to directly punish transgressors.

In a series of five studies (N = 1,531), Lauren Kaufmann and I find that people (1) people are willing to punish bystanders, but not as many people as are willing to punish the original transgressor; (2) however, conditional on wanting to punish, people were willing to engage in the same type and extent of punishment towards the bystander and transgressor; (3) though bystanders are not seen as less moral or less warm than witnesses who were unable to get involved, bystander behavior is seen as “less appropriate” and this drives the difference in punishment behavior; (4) people are more willing to punish bystanders who failed to help the victim than bystanders who failed the punish the transgressor — reflecting that society expects bystanders to help victims more than it expects bystanders to punish transgressors; and (5) offering an apology can reduce aggression towards a bystander. Next, we are exploring bystander punishment in the workplace with an autobiographic recall study with real employees to assess what moderates bystander disapproval in the real world. Initial pilot evidence (N = 120) suggests that people are more understanding of bystanders when the transgressor has more power or status such that getting involved presents a greater cost to bystanders. We will also be exploring what individual differences (e.g., guilt-proneness, self-monitoring, etc.) are associated with the drive to punish bystanders.

“When to promote and when play down the self? Revealing negative information to create a positive impression” (with Andras Molnar and Silvia Saccardo)

Reporting one’s successes to others can require a delicate balance of revealing the information without coming across as a braggart and without making others feel threatened. One potential strategy to deal with this is to self-deprecate, or simultaneously reveal competence-decreasing information. In a project with Silvia Saccardo and Andras Molnar, we theorize that people engage in costly self-deprecation in order to enhance perceived warmth. In a series of studies (N = 1,023), we find that this is indeed the effect of self-deprecation, but only when the status of the listener is lower than that of the speaker; when listener status is higher, self-deprecation is more detrimental than self-promotion. In a hypothetical study, we find that people make choices in line with this. We are currently examining this with real, incentivized communication choices.