How is social order possible among individuals who are tempted to behave
selfishly? Why and when do individuals pursue social goals rather than egoistic
ones? My research develops and evaluates an explanation of how the "free-rider
problem" of collective action can be overcome by individuals' desires for social
status, and the availability of increased status for those who contribute to
In a series of laboratory experiments, I found that contributors to collective action (a) enjoy improved status in the eyes of group members, (b) have greater influence on subsequent group tasks, and (c) benefit from "indirect reciprocity" in the form of gifts as well as higher rates of cooperation. Results suggest that contributions are a sign of generosity, rather than wealth or the ability to contribute (as suggested by most "costly signaling" accounts), or a sign of obligation to reciprocate (as suggested by exchange theory). A fourth study found that individuals who received status for their contributions subsequently tended to contribute more, identity more strongly with the group, and feel greater solidarity with its members.
Robb Willer. 2009. "Groups Reward Individual Sacrifice: The Status Solution to the Collective Action Problem." American Sociological Review. 74:23-43. PRESS RELEASE
Robb Willer. 2009. "A Status Theory of Collective Action." Pp. 133-63 in Advances in Group Processes, Vol. 26. Eds. Shane R. Thye and Edward J. Lawler. London: Emerald.
Collective Action and Status
Another line of my research investigates the dynamics of "masculine
overcompensation," the idea that men react to masculine insecurity with
extreme demonstrations of masculinity. Previous theory and research suggests
that hypermasculine behaviors may be rooted in insecurity. However, these
cross-sectional correlations typically do not establish a causal link, nor do they
address how and whether men change their attitudes when their gender
identity is threatened. I designed an experiment in which men and women were
randomly assigned feedback on a gender identity survey suggesting that they were either masculine or feminine. I then assessed study participants' attitudes on survey measures I found to be indicative of masculinity in an earlier survey study. While women showed no change as a result of the type of feedback received on the gender identity survey, men showed more extreme masculine-typed attitudes. Men given feedback threatening their masculinity expressed greater homophobia, greater support for the Iraq war, and greater interest in purchasing an SUV, relative to other vehicles. I have conducted follow-up research (with Christin Munsch) linking masculine insecurity with men's derogation of victims of violence against women. Another follow-up study (with Christabel Rogalin and Bridget Conlon) finds that men with higher levels of basal testosterone overcompensate significantly more than lower testosterone men.
This research has received media coverage from Science, the Chicago Tribune, Harper's, Men's Health, The Advocate, Car and Driver, the AAAS, CNN, The Rush Limbaugh Show, and elsewhere.
Robb Willer, Christabel Rogalin, Bridget Conlon, and Michael T. Wojnowicz. 2013. "Overdoing Gender: A Test of the Masculine Overcompensation Thesis." American Journal of Sociology. 118:980-1022. PRESS RELEASE
Christin Munsch and Robb Willer. 2012. "The Role of Gender Identity Threat in Perceptions of Date Rape and Sexual Coercion." Violence Against Women. In press.
Much of my recent research concerns the relationship between reputational
incentives and prosocial behavior (actions which benefit other individuals). In a
2007 paper, Pat Barclay and I found that people may behave prosocially in order
to increase generosity from others in future interactions, but also to gain access
to these relationships in the first place. When others could select the people
they would like to interact with, it created an environment of "competitive
In a project with Brent Simpson, we analyze how different individuals respond to reputational incentives in their prosocial behavior. We classified study participants a priori as either "altruists" or "egoists." We found that those classified as altruists tended to be less responsive to reputational incentives, behaving generously regardless of whether others would know their behavior, while egoists tended to give only when their reputations were at stake. I have since extended this work with Simpson, Matthew Feinberg, and Francis Flynn, showing that more egoistic individuals desire status more, making their generosity highly sensitive to the presence of reputational incentives in situation. More chronically altruistic individuals care less about reputational gain and behave more consistently generously as a result.
In related collaborative projects (with Feinberg, Dacher Keltner, and Jennifer Stellar) on prosociality and reputation, we explore (a) the emotional expression of embarrassment as a reliable signal of one's generosity and trustworthiness, and (b) the prosocial motives underlying much reputational information sharing in groups.
Our research on generosity and reputation has received media coverage from the San Francisco Chronicle, National Geographic, the Huffington Post, the Times of India, the Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette, and BBC Radio.
Pat Barclay and Robb Willer. 2007. "Partner Choice Creates Competitive Altruism in Humans." Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 274:749-753.
Brent Simpson and Robb Willer. 2008. "Altruism and Indirect Reciprocity: The Interaction of Person and Situation in Prosocial Behavior." Social Psychology Quarterly. 71:37-52.
Robb Willer, Matthew Feinberg, Kyle Irwin, Michael Schultz, and Brent Simpson. 2010. "The Trouble with Invisible Men: How Reputational Concerns Motivate Generosity." Pp. 315-330 The Handbook of the Sociology of Morality. Eds. Steve Hitlin and Stephen Vaisey. New York: Springer.
Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer, and Dacher Keltner. 2012. "Flustered and Faithful: Embarrassment as a Signal of Prosociality." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 102:81-97. PRESS RELEASE
Matthew Feinberg, Joey Cheng, and Robb Willer. 2012. "Gossip as an Effective Form of Low Cost Punishment."Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 35:25.
Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer, Jennifer Stellar, and Dacher Keltner. 2012. "The Virtues of Gossip: Reputational Information Sharing as Prosocial Behavior. "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 102:1015-1030. PRESS RELEASE
Robb Willer, Matthew Feinberg, Brent Simpson, and Francis J. Flynn. "Is Generosity Sincere or Strategic? Altruism versus Status-Seeking in Prosocial Behavior." Revise and resubmit.
Generosity and Reputation
Unpopular norms are theoretically puzzling from both functionalist and rational
choice perspectives, which view norms as popularly endorsed and socially
beneficial. Yet the literature is rife with cases of groups conforming to
undesirable norms. Damon Centola, Michael Macy, and I used agent-based
modeling to explore the effects of network structure on the diffusion of support
for unpopular norms in a 2005 paper, finding that a small minority of "true
believers" were sufficient to create widely-followed, self-enforcing unpopular
Subsequently, Ko Kuwabara, Michael Macy, and I conducted a series of experimental studies investigating under what conditions people will enforce unpopular norms. We completed two studies that show individuals respond to social pressure not only by conforming to a norm they do not endorse, but by pressuring others to do so as well. In two studies, participants not only fell in line with a group norm to praise a wine (Study 1) or unintelligible academic text (Study 2), but also sanctioned a lone deviant from the norm. These findings help explain how a group can become trapped in behavioral patterns that nearly everyone privately dislikes.
Robb Willer, Ko Kuwabara, and Michael W. Macy. 2009. "The False Enforcement of Unpopular Norms."American Journal of Sociology. 115:451-90.
Damon Centola, Robb Willer, and Michael W. Macy. 2005. "The Emperor's Dilemma: A Computational Model of Self-Enforcing Norms." American Journal of Sociology. 110(4):1009-40.
Despite mounting scientific evidence for the existence and severity of global
warming, Americans' belief in global warming has stagnated or even decreased
in recent years. One possible explanaton for this pattern is that the potentially
devastating consequences of global warming threaten people's fundamental
tendency to see the world as just, orderly, and stable. As a result, people may
respond by discounting evidence for global warming.
Matthew Feinberg and I tested this reasoning across two experiments. In one we found that participants who were exposed to more dire messages about climate change showed increased skepticism regarding global warming. Further, this effect was especially true among participants with strong beliefs that the world is generally fair, orderly, and stable. Then in a field experiment we increased some study participants' just world beliefs via a "sentence unscrambling task" that included statements designed to increase these beliefs (e.g., "The world is highly predictable", "Somehow justice will always prevail"). Those participants led to view the world as more stable and fair reported greater global warming skepticism than those who were not. These findings suggest that global warming skepticism may be rooted in part in individuals' motivations to view the world as just. As a result, more positive messages about global warming may be more effective for promoting the public understanding of climate change research.
Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer. 2011. "Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just World Beliefs." Psychological Science. 22:34-38. PRESS RELEASE
Global Warming Skepticism
I am interested in the phenomenon of generalized exchange, when unilateral
gift-giving emerges along chains of individuals, such as in the Kula Ring.
Generalized exchange can be driven by "generalized reciprocity," or the
tendency of a person to "pay forward" favors received from others in the past. If
altruism is contagious it would imply that the goodwill behind favors you have
received may have originated with people you don't even know; likewise, favors
that you pay others may go on to benefit total strangers.
I conducted four experiments on the existence and dynamics of generalized reciprocity. In the studies participants were given opportunities to give money from a pool to the next participant in the study after themselves receiving either a large or small monetary gift from the previous participant in the study. I found that people tended to give more to others if they had themselves had received greater amounts, i.e. generosity was contagious. This result persisted even when the affordability of material generosity and normative information were experimentally controlled. Further, a final experiment revealed that feelings of gratitude mediated the effect; i.e., people tended to behave generously after being treated generously because such treatment made them feel grateful. Together with Francis J. Flynn, I found evidence for the contagious generosity effect in a field study outside the lab.
In a related project, Francis J. Flynn, Sonya Zak, and I investigate the link between exchange structure and the emergence of group solidarity. Following classical anthropological and contemporary social exchange theory, we predicted that groups featuring indirect exchange will tend to generate greater levels of solidarity than those featuring direct exchange, because the former foster greater collective identification among group members. We tested these claims in survey-based case studies of two organizations: one of “Freecycle” a large-scale, on-line generalized exchange system, the other of “Craigslist,” a comparable direct exchange system. Results supported our core predictions. Further, direct observation of Freecycle members’ behavior showed that feelings of solidarity predicted subsequent giving behavior, over and above previous levels of giving. These findings suggest that a virtuous cycle may exist in which groups that promote generalized exchange can create positive feelings toward the group, sentiments that in turn generate greater contributions to group efforts.
Robb Willer, Francis J. Flynn, and Sonya Zak. 2012. "Structure, Identity, and Solidarity: A Comparative Field Study of Direct and Generalized Exchange." Administrative Science Quarterly. 57:119-155.
Robb Willer. "Is Generosity Contagious? The Dynamics of Generalized Reciprocity." In preparation.
Contagious Generosity, Generalized Reciprocity, and Solidarity
The threat of terrorism was a defining aspect of the Bush presidency and a
contributing factor to his reelection. In a 2004 paper I analyzed the effects of
government-issued terror warnings on President Bush's Gallup poll approval
ratings. The results of these analyses suggested a positive relationship whereby
terror alerts are followed by increases in approval for Bush. I also found
evidence that terror alerts lead to increased support for Bush's handling of the
economy. This latter finding may reflect a "halo effect" where support for Bush
following terror alerts extends even to aspects of his job performance unrelated
to terrorism, e.g. handling of the economy.
Later, Nick Adams and I conducted a national field experiment investigating
the role of terror concerns in support for the 2008 presidential candidates.
These papers received media coverage from the USA Today, L.A. Times, The Today Show, N.P.R., CNN, Headline News, and elsewhere.
Robb Willer. 2004. "The Effects of Government-Issued Terror Warnings on Presidential Approval Ratings." Current Research in Social Psychology. 10(1): 1-12.
Robb Willer and Nick Adams. 2008. "The Threat of Terrorism and Support for the 2008 Presidential Candidates: Results of a National Field Experiment." Current Research in Social Psychology. 14(1):1-22. PRESS RELEASE
Terrorism and Presidential Approval
My dissertation research emerged out of my ongoing interest in identifying
the conditions under which structural power leads to status. In a series of
experimental studies, my colleagues Michael Lovaglia, Lisa Troyer, Reef
Youngreen, and I show that power users can gain status in the eyes of
observers. In our studies, power users gain status particularly if they
successfully counteract others' perceptions of them being greedy and selfish
through the strategic use of small philanthropic gestures. Our research suggests
one answer to the puzzle of how power structures achieve legitimacy and
persist over time.
Robb Willer, Reef Youngreen, Lisa Troyer, and Michael J. Lovaglia. "How Do the Powerful Attain Status? The Roots of Legitimate Power Inequalities." Managerial and Decision Economics. 33:355-67.
Robb Willer, Lisa Troyer, and Michael J. Lovaglia. 2005. "Influence Over Observers of Structural Power: An Experimental Investigation." The Sociological Quarterly. 46:263-77.
Michael J. Lovaglia, Robb Willer, and Lisa Troyer. 2003. "Power, Status, and Collective Action: Developing Fundamental Theories to Address a Substantive Problem." In Advances in Group Processes, Volume 20. Eds. Shane R. Thye, John Skvoretz, and Edward J. Lawler. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Power, Status, and Philanthropy
In a recent paper I find that the probability of a network equilibrium is a function
not only of the satisfaction of incumbents of the structure, but also the location
of the network vis-a-vis other networks in the larger "metanetwork." A
metanetwork is a hypothetical structure linking network forms that are one link
manipulation distinct from one another. I find that certain networks are more
likely to obtain than others due to their proximity to other networks in the
Robb Willer. 2007. "The Role of Metanetworks in Network Evolution." Journal of Mathematical Sociology. 31:101-119.
Robb Willer and David Willer. 2000. "Exploring Dynamic Networks: Hypotheses and Conjectures." Social Networks. 22:251-272.
I am interested in the social psychology of religious belief. Religious belief is
almost ubiquitous across time and culture, yet its social psychological
antecedents remain only roughly understood. One often-cited factor that may
promote religious belief is fear of death. Fear of death may lead to increased
belief in the afterlife via a motivated reasoning process, as enhanced afterlife belief may serve to mollify mortality concerns.
In two laboratory experiments, I found that making mortality concerns salient to participants led to greater reported afterlife belief. I have also conducted unpublished research on the possible effect of salience of injustice on belief in God and the effects of religious belief on class consciousness, but have rarely found effects. Summaries of these studies are available from me via e-mail.
Robb Willer. 2009. "No Atheists in Foxholes: Motivated Reasoning and Religious Ideology." Pp. 241-264 in Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification. Eds. John T. Jost, Aaron C. Kay, and Hulda Thorisdottir. Oxford University Press.