Social Engagement and Cooperative Behaviour: Experimental Evidence

•Yves here. I submit this article as another “Where’s Waldo?” as in a reader opportunity to identify the hidden and typically erroneous assumptions.

Some of the apparent problems, in fairness, may be a function of the writing. The authors appear to take as a given the premise of the recruiters, that people who engage in “more intense social engagement” are better “team players”. “Team player” is a remarkably fuzzy concept to being with. So as I read this paper, what it really says is “recruiters look for certain behaviors as predictors of the behaviors they are looking for, and if you’ve gamed their system correctly, you will get hired.”

What bothers me about this is that the sort of behaviors that recruiters look for seems to reflect an extroversion bias. I’ve linked to articles in the past that have shown that on teams, the extroverts initially get high marks, but as the team works together, the introverts often wind up being ranked the highest….because they get the work done, which their fellow team members appreciate, while the most extroverted people seem to conflate being social with getting stuff done. Similarly, while extroverts are stereotyped as being the best salespeople, the evidence is the reverse. Borderline introverts/extroverts are the best, introverts are next best (they are better listeners, can establish rapport with the prospect, and will ditch candidates who are not likely to be closed to focus their energies on the prospects with the most potential) and the sterotypical “hail fellow well met” sorts fare worst.

In addition, the proxy used here is not what one might call “social engagement” as much as altruism. Altruism might well be a good proxy for being a good team member….but the examples actually chosen were people giving services to others in need. Does working intensively, mainly one-on-one, translate well into working with messy group dynamics, particularly negotiating? And are these altruistic types too idealistic to put up with a group or organization cutting corners to get work done, an attribute most organizations regard as important but would never admit to?

In other words, while this study does a good job of mapping how recruiter fads translate into hiring practices, I”m bothered that the authors never seem to question whether the hiring preferences are any good.

By Matthias Heinz, Assistant Professor for Personnel Economics, University of Cologne, and Heiner Schumacher, Associate Professor, Department of Economics, KU Leuven. Originally published at VoxEU

Are you more likely to get a job if you’re seen to be intensively social? This column presents experimental evidence demonstrating that intensive social engagement credibly signals willingness to cooperate in teams to potential employers. But it comes at a cost – extracurricular activities and being in demonstrably social positions takes time and resources.

What can organisations do to hire good team players? An increasing share of productive activities take place in teams (Lazear and Shaw 2007). Working in teams allows the skills of different individuals to be combined, which can result in outcomes a single person would not achieve (e.g. Page 2007). However, effective teamwork may be impeded by free riders. A single person in the team unwilling to contribute to the joint effort may lower everyone else’s motivation to do so. If employees’ cooperation in teams is important for an organisation, it may want to hire individuals who are not free riders, but instead are willing to contribute to a common good.

In our new study (Heinz and Schumacher 2015), we analyse how informative an applicant’s curriculum vitae (is about his or her willingness to cooperate in teams, and what human resource managers learn about this characteristic from resume content. We propose that intensive social engagement during adolescence and early adulthood credibly signals a concern for the well-being of others. This characteristic may reduce the propensity of free riding in teams even if the teamwork project is unrelated to the cause of the previous activity. Social engagement is done on a voluntary basis, costly in terms of leisure time, and usually presented on one’s resume so that human resource managers can condition their decisions upon this information. A significant share of young professionals is socially engaged and presents this information on the résumé (more than 20% in our sample).

Our Methodology

We conduct two experiments to detect the signalling value of social engagement and other activities, such as volunteering in students or sports associations:

In the first experiment, Study 1, we collect student subjects’ current resumes and measure their behaviour in a public goods game.

In the public goods game, subjects are matched in groups of three and choose how many of 20 tokens they would like to contribute to a public good. Contributions increase the group payoff, but are costly for the individual. The optimal strategy for a selfish individual is to contribute nothing and to free-ride on the other’s contributions. The strategy that maximises the group payoff is to contribute all 20 tokens. All decisions are made in anonymity. Hence, a subject’s contribution in the public goods game is our measure for the willingness to cooperate.

The public goods game has been evaluated in thousands of experimental studies. Several papers show that cooperation in the public goods game in the laboratory predicts cooperative group behaviour in real-world situations (e.g. Rustagi et al. 2010).

In the second experiment, Study 2, we ask human resource managers from different industries to predict the behaviour of Study 1 subjects in the public goods game, based on their resumes.

To identify the impact of extracurricular activities on the manager’s predictions, we randomly vary the resume content. To provide proper incentives, the managers’ payoff steeply increases in the precision of their predictions.

Finally, we have to codify the level of engagement. Our Study 1 subjects are engaged in various activities that differ in tasks, frequency, time spent with the activity, type of organisation, location, clients, and the hierarchical position in the organisation. Here are two examples from our dataset:

• “Three weeks volunteering project in the seniors residence XY; renovation of the house, helping seniors”;

• “Full-time voluntary social year in the organisation XY for disabled people; providing part-time support to a family with a disabled child for 2.5 years”.


To get an objective measure for the intensity of engagement, we recruited subjects who are uninformed about the experiment and asked them to rate for a given activity the intensity of engagement (on a scale between 1 and 10). The average rating from 12 people is our measure for the intensity of engagement, the “social intensity score”. For example, the social intensity score for the three-week volunteering project mentioned above is 2.36, and 7.25 for the years of work with disabled individuals.

Social Engagement and Group Behaviour

Our data from Study 1 show that subjects’ willingness to cooperate increases in their degree of social engagement. Subjects who indicate social engagement on their resume, but only get a score below the median of the social intensity score distribution, do not behave significantly different than subjects without any social engagement. Subjects with an above-median score in the distribution contribute 30-40% more than subjects without social engagement. In a control experiment, we replicate our main findings and rule out that they are driven by demand or priming effects through the collection of resumes.

Subjects engaged in student or sports associations do not contribute more in the public goods game than non-engaged subjects. Other items on the resume, such as age, gender, field of studies or the industry in which a subject collected professional experience, are mostly not informative about contributions in the public goods game.

Social Engagement and Mangers’ Beliefs

A total of 106 managers participated in our Study 2. They work in 28 different two-digit industries, 72% of them are female, 76% work in organisations that employ more than 500 workers, on average, they have 4.6 years professional experience in HR departments and have interviewed on average 228 applicants in their life.

These managers largely anticipate the relative behavioural differences. When they have to predict behaviour based on  resume content that does not contain extracurricular activities, socially engaged subjects are expected to behave like subjects active in student associations (once we control for gender). However, if resume content includes extracurricular activities, they expect socially-engaged subjects to contribute around 30% more in the public goods game than all other subjects. For socially engaged subjects with low social intensity scores, the predictions are 20% higher, for engaged subjects with high scores predictions are 40% higher. Thus, managers differentiate between low- and high-degree social engagement, but low-degree engagement gets an undeserved bonus. The intensity of engagement in student or sports associations has no positive effect on predictions.


The results from the two studies taken together demonstrate that intensive social engagement credibly signals the willingness to cooperate in teams to potential employers. In line with job market signalling theory (Spence 1973), producing the signal is costly. The activities that receive high social intensity scores almost always involve working in positions with a high degree of commitment and responsibility for needy people. The information that has to be provided on the resume to achieve a high social intensity score comprises many details, including precise data on the time frame and the organisation at which the engagement took place. Like educational achievements, it is verifiable by third parties. We therefore conclude that a young professional’s vita not only signals productivity through education, but also important behavioural characteristics through the choice of her extracurricular activities.

How Important is Social Engagement for Hiring Decisions?

It remains an open question how important social engagement is when it comes to actual hiring decisions. There is some indicative evidence that it is important. Psychologists have shown that resumes with more extracurricular activities receive more invitations to job interviews and job offers (e.g. Nemanick and Clark 2002, Cole et al. 2007). One of the most common extracurricular activities in our sample was social engagement. This indicates that social engagement matters for individuals’ labour market success.

However, industries may differ in the extent to which they search for good team players. In some work environments, outputs are a precise signal about individual inputs, meaning that an employee’s willingness to cooperate in teams is (generally) not important. Human resource management for such work environments may not have a particularly pronounced demand for employees who care about other people. However, in other work environments, outputs are hard to attribute to a particular effort, and monitoring or the provision of explicit incentives may have unintended negative consequences (as in the public sector or in non-profit organisations). It is then probably a good idea to search for employees who care about others.

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  1. Tenney Naumer

    This “study” has so many flaws that I cannot begin to innumerate them via iPhone. Should not have been accepted for publication.

  2. Clive

    Oh, where to begin! If I didn’t know better I’d almost start to think this was from Craazyman’s University of Magonia.

    I’ll start off with “correlation isn’t causation” — it was deemed by the researchers who fell into the trap of assuming that just because candidates had participated in socially beneficial activities they were more empathetic and more considerate of others. There could be many other reasons why job seekers did such activities. They could have been coerced into it by schools, family or other social pressure. They could simply be cynically CV polishing. They could be lying about it (the researchers didn’t seem to validate all those claims of doing “social engagement” do-gooding).

    Then we have a lack of evidence that just because one undertakes these “extra curricula activities” this means you must possess the “desirable” (I won’t even bother to expand on the can of worms that is what qualities makes a person “desirable” in this- or that- workplace situation) traits which employers are seeking. Some of the worst psychopathic mad-as-a-loon nutcases I have ever come across hid especially well their personality disorders behind a cloak of apparent limitless altruism. Those who are untreated and possibly untreatable narcissistic personalities know precisely how they are deficient and have developed elaborate and highly polished disguises.

    I’ll throw in as a parting shot a complaint about small sample sizes, limited periods of observation, lack of clarity about data collection and controls, no accounting for cultural factors or even an explicit declared national or regional setting for the “study” (I assume it was German-based but the data apparently came from different companies and, presumably, different countries and cultural influences but they were just all lumped in together and treated as being interchangeable).

    It’s like watching The Muppet Show.

    1. craazyman

      this would get you thrown out of u. Magonia.

      Our scholarship is unconventional, but we get things right — all the time.(or most of the time, anyway)

      Alll these people in this study, even the authors, they could all get admitted to that West Virginia Insane Asylum that the 125 pound AbyN found so hilarious. Perhaps one of those categories like “exhaustion in the head’ or something

  3. fresno dan

    introverts rule, extroverts drool!
    Caveat – I am a contrary curmudgeon, so I of course approach this with my own jaded preconception – that anyone talking “teamwork” means don’t disrupt the group think.
    Go along to get along…

    1. pdehaan

      Exactly. The thing I’ve always dreaded the most at my current and previous employers have always been the organized infantile group activities in the eternal quest for higher motivation and productivity. I guess there must be a bunch of books written on the subject, or possibly they’re trying to mimic the ‘community spirit’ over at Google and other places (designed for you to never leave the place). My own experience is that these activities only widen the gap. I mean, I can’t really communicate what I really think about the subject matters that are important to me, or otherwise I’d at best be considered a weirdo and at quite possibly out of a job. So, in this context I need to deploy my best survival instincts and play along to get along.

  4. chris

    As for student extracurricular activities, these days they are mostly used to game the college acceptance process and have no intrinsic meaning to the volunteers. So in terms of using them to judge the desirability of a recruit, they’d be contraindicators in my book.

  5. Norb

    Put someone in a real life crisis situation and their commitment to teamwork will become obvious- without all the slick marketing and branding veneer.

    Work situations are the same. Someone who has passion for craftsmanship and actually producing something of value stand out- they are the team players in the true sense.

    Demanding teamwork from people to produce crappy or fraudulent products is contradictory thinking though- good luck to that. Seems to create a social evolutionary process of selecting for dysfunction.

  6. Brooklin Bridge

    After Yves and Clive, what to say? Yves points about introvert and extroverts line up with my experience almost like a duplicate on a light table.

    How HR people see the problem is another matter and except for smallish companies a problem is sometimes getting around them (on either side, candidate/employer) to review CVs and/or meet directly. Some people in mid to upper management also seem to have a highly stereotyped vision of what makes good candidates (even more so for manager positions), but not the good ones and less often than in HR which seems to specialize in thinking in propaganda as if it were a language all its own.

  7. GlobalMisanthrope

    I agree w BB that Yves and Clive have hit the problems with the study and I’ll add that the poor quality of the writing tracks the poor quality of the thinking. Maps, really.

    I have been responsible for hiring, training, disciplining (useless) and firing for the past 15 years. After many mistakes, I finally learned to overcome an extroversion bias in my own hiring. I have to say, in my experience, extroverts are never the best employees and very often have a terrible effect on teamwork because they are, by and large, attention seekers.

    I enjoy creative, independent thinkers with brains, principles, wit and charm. Extroverts, usually. But I have found they can be very difficult to manage. My rule of thumb now is, if I find myself smiling a lot during the interview, they don’t get the job.

  8. Kris Alman

    “Engagement” as a measurable trait is laughable. Data miners like to associate the click with a trait. A padded linked-in resume measures that superficial quality–even when engagements are really just hook-ups.

    Socially Transmitted Data are highly infectious and hard to cure.

  9. Code Name D

    I would say that even its premise needs to be challenged. The military and many places I have worked at are of the opinion that what makes a good team is good leadership. In the Navy, if a company or team failed to perform, it was always the ranking officer who was called into account – not the men.
    Of course upper management today doesn’t do responsibility. So I can see why this line of thinking might have an appeal for them. If a team fails to fall together – well the team was just made up of the wrong people. Perish the thought that it might be a failure of leadership. So this paper got green lit, not because of its sound science, but because this is exactly the sort of nonsense todays CEOs and upper management wants to hear. And when you give them what they want, the “Ka-ching” is usually to follow.

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