Saving Face Through Norm Compliance and Obligation Avoidance

24 Pages Posted: 7 Sep 2019

See all articles by Matthew Chao

Matthew Chao

Williams College

Jonathan Chapman

New York University (NYU) - New York University Abu Dhabi

Date Written: August 15, 2019


Many cultures emphasize that reciprocity is related to public image and “saving face,” such as by publicly demonstrating repayment of an obligation. Consistent with this, previous experiments have shown that some individuals act more selfishly when actions can be hidden and one’s image is not at risk. However, some individuals may instead prefer that their actions be observed; they may view hidden actions not as an opportunity to act selfishly, but rather as an obstacle to their desire to save face and display norm compliance. Study 1 tests this hypothesis by implementing a trust game where nature stochastically intervenes and allocates nothing in place of the second-mover’s choice. When nature intervenes, many second-movers choose to sacrifice both their own pay and their partner’s pay in order to truthfully signal that they attempted to allocate more. They therefore choose to signal norm-compliance even when it reduces pay for the very person they are indebted to. This need to signal norm compliance may increase the burden associated with obligation-inducing actions; Study 2 therefore tests whether individuals strategically avoid outcomes that activate norms and induce obligations. Players play two rounds of dictator games of increasing size, swapping roles in between. In treatments that allow it, many players in the first round reject allocations from their partner; they then act more selfishly as the dictator in the subsequent, larger round. These results emphasize the importance of image-based obligation avoidance and repayment as components of social preferences.

Keywords: Reciprocity, Fairness, Obligation, Social Image, Saving Face

JEL Classification: C70, D91, M31

Suggested Citation

Chao, Matthew and Chapman, Jonathan, Saving Face Through Norm Compliance and Obligation Avoidance (August 15, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Matthew Chao (Contact Author)

Williams College ( email )

Williamstown, MA 01267
United States

Jonathan Chapman

New York University (NYU) - New York University Abu Dhabi ( email )

PO Box 129188
Abu Dhabi
United Arab Emirates

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics