Social Norms vs Market Norms

August 26th, 2008 in Books, open source, Would you do it again for free?

Social norms govern whether you are willing to help a friend move or cook dinner for your family. Market norms govern what you are willing to do for how much money. In an experiment to show how social norms vary from market norms, Dan Ariely created a computer task where volunteers had to drag circles into boxes. He then divided his volunteers into 3 groups.

  • Group 1 got $5.00.
  • Group 2 got either 50 cents or 10 cents.
  • Group 3 was asked to do him a favor.

Not surprisingly, group 1 – the highest paid group – outperformed group 2, but group 3 – the volunteer group – outperformed them all.

He went on to talk about how that affects employer-employee relationships. While market norms are at work, employees are asking for a lot of social norm like stuff, working 24×7, giving up holidays, etc. When they don’t repay in “social norm” stuff like time off when the kids are sick, employees immediately feel cheated.

What was interesting to me from a “Would you do it again for free?” perspective was:

“when a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time. In other words, social relationships are not easy to reestablish.”

To me, that would mean that once you are paid to work on open source software, it would be hard to go back to doing it for free.

Although based on other research I’ve read, I think open source software developers – ones who did for free, were paid, and then were no longer paid – would move to a different open source software project rather than quit altogether.

Another tidbit, relevant to Friends of GNOME: gifts don’t change how hard volunteers work unless it’s pointed out what the gifts cost.

5 Responses to “Social Norms vs Market Norms”

  1. Jan Schmidt says:

    Hi Stormy!
    “Another tidbit, relavent to Friends of GNOME: gifts don’t change how hard volunteers work unless it’s pointed out what the gifts cost.”
    That one is sort of thrown in there at the end without a reference. Is it true? It’s the only point of the post that doesn’t ring entirely true to me.
    In particular, I think a really cool and unexpected gift arriving out of the blue would have a different effect than a known-in-advance “Do some volunteering and you get a keyring” type thing. The “aww, you didn’t have to do that” feeling while receiving something you genuinely like would make a difference.
    I have no evidence to back that up though.

  2. an active GNOME developer says:

    “To me, that would mean that once you are paid to work on open source software, it would be hard to go back to doing it for free.”
    That’s interesting, because it matches my observation:
    Some days ago I asked a Red Hat employee to investigate how we can improve a certain technical solution in GNOME he was working on (for his employer), which would have a direct positive effect for users.
    He was just concerned with the part of work that he was paid for, rather than the actual user situation.
    In my opinion, it is a perfect example how money spoils your orientation towards satisfying solutions (from a user perspective) – even though I must admit that I observe a similar effect in my employments: Getting along with the boss is everything.

  3. Stormy says:

    The Friends of GNOME thing was a leap. It should have been that paying people in gifts doesn’t remove the social norms, so it doesn’t unmotivate them! As long as you don’t point out how much the gift did or didn’t cost.
    I also agree that getting along with your boss, coworkers and fellow volunteers is everything.

  4. “Although based on other research I’ve read, I think open source software developers – ones who did for free, were paid, and then were no longer paid – would move to a different open source software project rather than quit altogether.”
    Hmm. Not research – just an anecdote – but an Apache guy I know does both, because doing the free stuff generates new business for him.

  5. behdad says:

    Hi Stormy,
    Thanks for the thoughtful post, as always.
    Your post and conclusion about working on Free Software also reminds me of the widely known Israeli daycare experiment. [1]
    Also note that when you are doing something as a volunteer, there’s a non-flat reward. If you do twice as much work, you get much more than twice appreciation. But when you are paid a flat salary for your work, working twice harder may get you a bonus or a raise, but nothing like twice what you are currently paid.
    An indirect corollary of the above is that when you are doing paid work, you start thinking whether you should also establish a non-work job, you start not working in the evenings, then not working on weekends, etc, to regain a social life. But when you’re a college student hacking on Free Software (or if you are doing a startup for example), doesn’t matter if you don’t have a social life for a while: you are gaining something much bigger in return, be it recognition or a huge lump of money. None exists in a regular employment in a medium to big company.
    [1] This is the best link I found: http://action.web.ca/home/crru/rsrcs_crru_full.shtml?x=119935&AA_EX_Session=a48e91eb59d3079257f314c7a4073065