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Research shows that women tend to defect in a social dilemma game in Southwest China

Figure 1 - A girl during military training is sitting apart from groups of boys. Photo taken by Dr. Pansini at Yunnan University of Finance and Economics, where the experiment took place.

Rarely detailed accounts of cooperation behaviour have been published from China showing how cultural norms can skew very well conserved strategic rules. In our country, different inequalities typical of a developing economy can be found, although the fast economic rise of China has allowed the rise, for example, of the now largest middle class to be found worldwide just in 2015. Gender imbalances still represent a problem that needs to be further address, In China as elsewhere.

This is a novel research line investigated by the KIZ, which incorporates evolutionary biology and behavioural economics. Dr. Riccardo Pansini from the Experimental and Theoretical Ecology Group, Prof. Rui-Wu Wang and Prof. Lei Shi from the Behavioral and Experimental Economics Research Center of Yunnan University of Finance and Economics tested Chinese subjects taking part in a Prisoner’s Dilemma Game. In these types of experiments, usually university students take part in computer lab based tests in which they are given some little money to trade across themselves. In this new experiment, students from the local Finance and Economics university volunteered to have their economic behaviour tested. The male subjects took up cooperation behaviour not that dissimilar to other individuals tested in western countries, however other subjects shifted their behavioural strategy from cooperating into defecting. In particular, it was the women that invest less into cooperation, giving a strong indication of an aversion toward the risk involved into capitalising money onto anonymous partners. Compared to Western Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies, Eastern China retains uses and customs typical of a patriarchal society in which women hold a hierarchical disadvantage. It seems therefore less convenient to them to invest some capital, because it may be returned at a discounted price. The lower use of cooperation behaviour in these Chinese women may therefore be due to the low expectation they have in being returned the investment.

The study speculates that the particularly skewed asymmetric position shown by the different genders in this more traditional, Southwest Chinese society – lower women literacy, lower employment rate, and negligible representation at high political levels – is such to justify their high defection rate. Some indication is given in the paper so to foster the implementation of gender-related equal rights for the promotion of a more homogeneous society.

The paper titled “Women tend to defect in a social dilemma game in Southwest China” has been published in PLOS ONE.

(By Riccardo Pansini)


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