Media Briefings

NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE: Experimental evidence that Italians share less generously with people from the other half of the country

  • Published Date: April 2017

More than 150 years after the country’s unification, southerners and northerners in Italy still find it hard to cooperate with each other, according to research by Simona Gamba and Pietro Battiston, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017.

The researchers performed a laboratory experiment in which members of a group all contributed to a kitty, which was then shared back equally among the group. In the experiment, contributions increased when the groups could see each other, and even more if they could discuss their strategy. But when the groups could interact, members of groups that were ‘all south’ or ‘all north’ were more generous in sharing their wealth than members of mixed groups.

The results demonstrate the lingering north-south divide in Italy, the authors say: ‘The difficulty in cooperating across geographical barriers, even when such barriers are intangible, reminds us of the importance of integration for the economic success of a country.’

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Together with her co-author Pietro Battiston, Simona Gamba has shown that within Italy, a country that has been united for more than 150 years, differences in the geographical origin of individuals are still reflected in more difficult cooperation compared with individuals from the same region.

Researchers who study human behaviour within societies have since long observed that populations in different areas of the world react differently to circumstances in which features such as trust, altruism and the propensity to cooperate are at stake. For example, historically isolated communities, such as indigenous groups, tend to show stronger cohesion, which is reflected in higher level of trust even when interacting with peers of whom they ignore the identity.

In some cases, however, strong differences can be found even between citizens of a same country, and Italy is a prototypical example, with levels of ‘social capital’ being significantly higher in the North than in the South, despite many decades of common language, religion and national authorities.

Scientists have measured such differences by designing ‘games’ that simulate, for example, the process by which a community invests in a public good, and by running such experiments in different areas of Italy: the results show that contributions are indeed larger in the North than in the South.

Simona Gamba and Pietro Battiston ran an experiment in which, for the first time, they were able to observe both Italians living in the North and Italians living in the South, interacting in such a ‘public good game’ in which individual contributions are kept secret, but they sum up to determine benefits for each participant.

The rules of the game allowed each participant to offer 0, 1 or 2 ‘points’: the average contribution was 1.308, but Northerners gave on average up to 0.274 more than Southerners, depending on the stage of the game.

The results from different stages of the game are themselves revealing. Initially, subjects did not know the identity of other participants contributing to their public good: contributions increased when identities were revealed, and they increased again when participants were able to discuss among themselves despite the fact that individual contributions would still be secret. But the gap between Southerners and Northerners, which had been unnoticeable under anonymity, also increased along with the increase in coordination possibilities.

The two researchers also find that subjects who had been assigned to mixed groups, including both Southerners and Northerners, contributed less on average than those in homogeneous groups. This result is telling in a country that has been afflicted by a very slow and difficult process of integration between the two parts of the peninsula.

Different levels of social capital have long been related to different levels of economic development, and Italy is no exception in this: Southern regions feature lower per capita income and higher levels of unemployment than Northern regions.

Gaining better insights on what characterises and causes segregation and differences in social capital is crucial for policy-makers, who have tried in many ways to close the gap, unsuccessfully.

More generally, the difficulty of cooperating across geographical barriers, even when such barriers are intangible, reminds us of the importance of integration for the economic success of a country, and this applies to many other countries characterised by strong internal differences (for example, a similar gap has been observed and studied experimentally between citizens of East and of West Germany).

ENDS


‘When the two ends meet: an experiment on cooperation across the Italian North-South divide’

Simona Gamba:
gamba.simona@gmail.com

Pietro Battiston:
me@pietrobattiston.it