Groups Reward Individual Sacrifice: The Status Solution to the Collective Action Problem

American Sociological Review

One of sociology’s classic puzzles is how groups motivate their members to set aside self-interest and contribute to collective action. This article presents a solution to the problem based on status as a selective incentive motivating contribution. Contributors to collective action signal their motivation to help the group and consequently earn diverse benefits from group members—in particular, higher status—and these rewards encourage greater giving to the group in the future. In Study 1, high contributors to collective action earned higher status, exercised more interpersonal influence, were cooperated with more, and received gifts of greater value. Studies 2 and 3 replicated these findings while discounting alternative explanations. All three studies show that giving to the group mattered because it signaled an individual’s motivation to help the group. Study 4 finds that participants who received status for their contributions subsequently contributed more and viewed the group more positively. These results demonstrate how the allocation of respect to contributors shapes group productivity and solidarity, offering a solution to the collective action problem.