Responsibility crowds-out cooperation…
Groups such as families can be expected to behave less pro-socially than other decision-making groups.
They established this experimentally. They split subjects into three groups: in one, individuals made choices purely for themselves; in a second, they took responsibility for a payoff to a friend as well as themselves; and in a third, they took responsibility for a stranger’s payoff. They then played a series of public goods games.
The results were clear and strong. Players who were responsible for their friends' payoffs contributed only one-third as much to the public good as sole players or players responsible for a stranger.
This is not trivial. In theory, responsibility could increase one’s inclination to contribute to public goods. This could be because being responsible in one context primes you to be responsible in others. Or it could be because the aggregate payoff in public goods games is maximized when everyone contributes, and people want the best for their dependents. In fact, neither of these mechanisms operates, and the opposite happens strongly. And if responsibility for friends generates selfishness, how much more likely is responsibility for stronger relationships such as a wife or children?
You might think this is because when we are responsible for others, we become more risk-averse. However, some other experiments refute this hypothesis; the researchers found that, in choices of lotteries, those responsible for friends payoffs made the same choices as selfish players.
Why, then, does responsibility create selfishness?
One possibility is that people prefer to act selfishly anyway - and not contribute to the public good - but they can justify this to themselves by claiming they are thinking of others. We’ve all seen people behaving badly under the excuse of having a wife and family to support. This, though, raises the question of why having responsibility for strangers doesn’t generate this self-justification, whereas having responsibility for a friend does?
Another possibility is that although responsibility doesn’t change risk-aversion, it does increase betrayal aversion. When they are responsible for others, people become more fearful of being the mug who cooperates when others don’t, and so choose the selfish option.
Whatever the reason, it suggests there is a trade-off between two of Cameron’s main values - because family life might actually weaken the pro-sociality that is key to the Big Society. His claim that “Families are the building blocks of a strong, cohesive society” might be plain wrong.