Social identities in experimental economics
In a graphic image used in the introductory chapter to the Foundations of Human Sociality, Ernst Fehr and Colin F. Camerer compare the role and scope of experimental games in the study of human sociality to that of a first sketch or outline in the process of an artist's conception of a painting. Just like a rough draft, experimental games are, as Camerer and Fehr put it, "reductions of social phenomena to something extremely simple" (Camerer and Fehr 2004: 85). By abstracting from contingent details and by reducing complex phenomena to some of their basic (and perhaps essential) features, experimental games allow for "comparability across subject pools" (ibid.: 84), a feature of which the volume from which the quote is taken is itself a most impressive example.Yet it has to be said that reduction is always dangerous, and the art of drawing offers an excellent example for the adventures of simplification: if too many details, redundancies and apparently contingent features are left out, people might misunderstand the sketch. In his Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has the narrator learning this the hard way when the little boy draws his "Drawing Number One' — a giant snake digesting an elephant — only to learn to his disappointment that the adults mistake the lumpy blob with two lines tapering off to both sides to be a rendering of a hat! The lesson is that for all their simplicity, rough outlines need more interpretative work from the side of the beholder than more detailed pictures. And the more reductive a rendering, the more easily it is misunderstood. The question is: could this also be true of game experimental "sketches'? How do we know what an experiment is about in terms of real-life social phenomena?
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