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Calamities, common interests, shared identity: what shapes social cohesion in Europe?

What is this research about and why did you do it?

We identify factors that enhance trust, reciprocity, and altruism towards other individuals in society. We are interested in whether critical periods and a sense of ‘group belonging’ induce people to display other-regarding preferences.

The motivation is to understand if economic ties are sufficient to ensure cultural and social convergence among European Union (EU) member states. If it is not enough, further actions, such directly promoting common European values, may be needed to foster social cohesion among EU citizens.

How did you answer this question?

Participants were randomly assigned to a treatment or a control group. They were first asked a question about a social phenomenon and then given information about it.

  • Treatment 1 (COVID-19), total deaths per million people in their country relative to the EU.
  • Treatment 2 (EU trade), their country’s share of exports to other EU countries.
  • Treatment 3 (EU values), share of respondents in the Eurobarometer who mentioned as fundamental of the European project: peace, democracy, protection of human rights, or equality.
  • Control, information about a neutral fact.

After the treatment, they participated in two standard incentivised games: the ‘dictator game’ and the ‘trust game’. 

What did you find?

Priming the COVID-19 crisis (T1) has a positive, significant, and sizeable, effect on both altruism and reciprocity. It is generally larger for compatriots (for reciprocity and altruism) and fellow EU citizens (for altruism) than for non-EU citizens.

Priming European common values (T3) also has a significant impact on both reciprocity and altruism, but only towards respondents of the same country and of other EU countries. This confirms that the values are perceived as common to EU citizens rather than universal.

Priming EU trade relations (T2) has a limited impact on all three outcomes.

Finally, we find respondents’ trust in others to be unaffected by any of the treatments.


What implications does this have for the research on wealth concentration or economic inequality?

These findings indicate that common values, such as peace, democracy, protection of human rights, and, crucially, equality, enhance cohesion in a society, even spanning a continent. On the other hand, our results suggest that economic interests alone do not suffice to build social solidarity and unity.

What are the next steps in your agenda?

We want to understand whether conspiracy theories related to the EU (such as the Great Replacement Theory) hurt the social cohesion in Europe, and we want to design informational interventions, related to inequality reduction, to mitigate their impact.

Citation and related resources

This paper can be cited as follows: Aksoy, C.G., Cabrales, A., Dolls, M., Durante, R. and Windsteiger, L. (2021) 'Calamities, Common Interests, Shared Identity: What Shapes Altruism and Reciprocity?', CEPR Discussion Paper 16186.

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About the authors

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