VoxEU Column

Intensive social engagement as a signal for cooperative behaviour in teams

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 managers’ 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.


Cole, M, R Rubin, H Feild, and W Giles (2007), “Recruiters' Perceptions and Use of Applicant Resume Information: Screening the Recent Graduate”, Applied Psychology: An International Review, 56(2), 319-343.

Heinz, M, and H Schumacher (2015), “Signaling Cooperation”, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 10942.

Lazear, E, and K Shaw (2007), “Personnel Economics: The Economist's View of Human Resources”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 21(4): 91-114.

Nemanick, R, and E Clark (2002), “The Differential Effects of Extracurricular Activities on Attributions in Résumé Evaluation”, International Journal of Selection and Assessment 10(3): 206-217.

Page, S (2007), The Difference – How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Rustagi, D, S Engel, and M Kosfeld (2010), “Conditional Cooperation and Costly Monitoring Explain Success in Forest Commons Management”, Science 42(1): 961-965.

Spence, M (1973), “Job Market Signaling”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 87(3): 355-374.

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