Working with the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, we conducted a laboratory study into the effects of small acts of respectfulness.

Read the write-up on the Busara blog.

We don’t know much about the consequences of respectfulness: what happens when you treat people more respectfully? Do small acts of respectfulness generate other positive changes, such as greater participation, altruism, self-efficacy or wellbeing? Dignity is surely entangled with other concepts, such as empowerment, but we don’t know how, just yet, or what respectfulness means to people. This quick “Off The Record” study is a first step on that road.


Our study design

We invited 2000 respondents from Kibera to the Busara Lab by text message, a day before the sessions. Participants were randomized into one of three groups:

  1.  Control: they received the default invite message,
  2.  Treatment 1: they received a message recognising them by name,
  3.  Treatment 2: they received a message that included both their name and a choice of attendance time.

We sought to answer the following questions:

  • Do more people show up? Whether they attended the lab was our first outcome measure.
  • Are they more altruistic? For the 239 people that attended the lab session, we reinforced their treatment by reminding them of the messages they had received. Then, we looked at whether this increased altruism (in a Dictator game),
  • Are they more empowered? Measured via the proxy of self-efficacy
  • Are they happier? Measured via the proxy of wellbeing.


What we learned

Concept Paper

It turns out that small acts of respectfulness — giving choices over time and using names — do not affect participation, altruism, self-efficacy or wellbeing. As evidenced in this graph, being recognised by name or given a choice of what time to attend did not make people significantly more likely than those in the control group to show up. It did not make them significantly more altruistic, bring them higher self-efficacy or higher wellbeing.

What should we conclude? Here are some possibilities. First of all, maybe we’re underpowered. Second, respectfulness is more radical than just politeness – perhaps small acts of respectfulness aren’t enough. Third, respectfulness is always intertwined with expectations. Where people expect to be treated well, higher dose treatments are needed. And fourth, respectfulness is important in its own right. We don’t need to see positive effects in other domains for this to be important.

Read the write-up on the Busara blog.


Busara center