Social Capital and M&Ms

Social capital is a “fuzzy” concept but serves as the foundation for some key comparative politics theories that we cover in my Introduction to Comparative Politics course. To help my students get a better grasp of the concept, I borrowed an activity from economics: the ultimatum game.

Briefly, I have the students pair up and distribute a handout to keep track of offers in the game. The students first need to allocate roles: proposer and responder. I tell them that the student whose middle name starts with an earlier letter in the alphabet is the proposer, just to randomize it somewhat. The proposer makes an offer of a division of some resource. Because candy is a (near) universal motivator, I use M&Ms and Skittles (I let the pairs decide which candy to play for, but I like to offer skittles for lactose-free students). I distribute 50 candies per pair and they play 5 rounds; in each round, the proposer makes an offer to split 10 candies. The responder can only accept or reject the offer. If the responder rejects, neither get any (they go back to me). If the responder accepts, then they divide the candy.

Cavaet: I teach in a unique program. It is year-long, cohort of students who live together as well as take a series of courses together. To capitalize on this, I had them pair up with their roommates. And in the debrief, discussed below, we hypothesize about how different pairings or different groups of students might behave differently.

As is often the case, the debrief is where the magic happens. During the activity, it was clear the students weren’t sure what the connection was to class. After the activity, we talked a bit about what economists would expect people to do and then what they did. In this group, there were very few rejections at all and a good number of the “offers” where fairly balanced (if not 50/50, close to 60/40).

Then I asked why – this is where it all started to come together and lightbulbs went off over their heads. They talked a lot about trust, fairness, and repeated interactions (“I have to live with her for the rest of the year, I’m not going to cheat her.”). I built on the conversation by asking them to consider how the game might be played out in other classes, where students didn’t have the same relationship (or same amount of social capital).

This activity allowed them to see social capital in action: even in just four weeks of having classes and living together, the students had already built up a significant amount of social capital. From there, we talked about what social capital can do and why it matters for democracy.

It was a pretty quick activity, with minimal preparation (buying the candy and printing the handouts). It took about 10 minutes to get the students into groups and run the activity, then another 10 minutes or so in debriefing.