Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. These are cliches. But they are not necessarily true, as an experiment by Maros Servatka and colleagues shows.
They got subjects to play a simple game. In this, player A has $10 and can choose to give some, none or all to player B. However much he gives, the experimenter triples it. Player B then chooses to return some, none or all of the money to A.
This game hinges upon trust. The more A trusts B to return cash, the more he’ll give. So, how can A be made to trust B? The experimenters tried three things before the game was played. One was simply to do nothing. A second was to get B to write a message to A. The third was to have B give money to A.
And here’s the thing. The message worked much better at winning A’s trust and elicting his contribution. On average, A gave $8.92 when B sent a message, compared to $7.31 when B sent a gift and just $5.55 when there was nothing.
Words, then, are better than actions. This, says Dr Servatka, is because “a key to building a trusting relationship is in conveying the idea that both players are entering a mutually beneficial transaction that will result in both of them being better off.” And it seems that a message does more to build such a relationship and to convey that idea than does a gift. It seems that people are keen to trust those who send them a message.
This is consistent with the finding (pdf) from dictator games that “communication dramatically influences altruistic behavior, and appears to largely work by heightening empathy.”
All this helps explain why firms spend so much on advertising: communication elicits giving.
But it raises a thought. Lots of communication is asymmetric; it tends to run more from the rich to the poor, from rulers to ruled and from bosses to workers rather than vice versa. This suggests that the rich and powerful are more likely to elicit trust and gifts from the poor and weak than vice versa.
In this sense, the very existence of the media serves to entrench inequality, even aside from their explicit ideological content.