Under Review

“Thanking, Apologizing, Bragging, and Blaming: Responsibility Exchange Theory and the Currency of Communication” (with George Loewenstein), Revise & Resubmit at a psychology journal. [download working paper] [PsyArXiv page]

From the time we are children, we are taught to say “thank you” and “I’m sorry.” These communications are central to many social interactions, and the failure to say them often leads to conflict in relationships. Research has documented that, alongside the impact they can have on relationships, apologies and thanks can also impact material outcomes as small as restaurant tips and as significant as settlements of medical malpractice lawsuits. But how can such “cheap talk” carry so much value? In this paper, we propose a theory that explains why these communications are not costless and draws connections between four forms of communication that have not previously been connected: thanking, apologizing, bragging, and blaming. All four of these communications relay information about credit or blame for a positive or negative outcome, and thus introduce image-based costs and benefits for both the communicator and the recipient of communication: Each of the four communications involves a tradeoff between appearing competent and appearing warm. By formalizing these social psychological insights with a cognitive approach to modeling communication, and by applying game theoretic analysis, we offer new insights and predictions about social communication. In the first experiment, we test the main assumptions of the model (i.e., that these communications produce a tradeoff between perceived competence and warmth). In a second experiment, we test several of the model’s novel predictions about strategic communication. We end by discussing extended predictions and applications of the model as examples of future directions for research on the topic

“The Lesser of Two Evils: Revealing Context to Signal Generosity” (with Andras Molnar), Under Review at a management journal.

People often find themselves facing choices that result in only negative outcomes, and they must select “the lesser of two evils.” Despite their best intentions, their choice elicits negative feelings in observers, and their social image is tarnished, unless they can explain their choice by disclosing the full choice set.  We investigate whether people are willing to incur a cost to explain their choices even when there cannot be reputational consequences. Across three studies, we demonstrate that many participants are willing to pay to reveal their choice set, particularly when it signals good, rather than bad, intentions. We find that this desire to reveal is valued more than improving the material welfare of others. We also show that individual differences in the drive to disclose cannot be explained by selection effects or mistakes in predicting the observer’s reaction, but rather by revealers’ stronger concern for strangers’ thoughts and beliefs.

“Team Chemistry: Apologizing Beats Blaming on the Basketball Court” (with Russell Golman), Under Review at a psychology journal.

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.