EXPLAINING ITALY”S NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE: Experimental evidence of large differences in social norms of cooperation

EXPLAINING ITALY''S NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE: Experimental evidence of large differences in social norms of cooperation

Regional economic differences within Italy will not be reduced simply by building infrastructure, tackling organised crime or increasing productive investment in the South: people''s norms of cooperation need to change too. That is the central finding of a series of economic experiments run by Marco Casari and his colleagues, the results of which are published in the August 2016 issue of the Economic Journal.

Their study involved nearly 700 ordinary citizens from the North and South of Italy, who were presented with a situation with real money at stake in which they could choose whether or not to trust anonymous citizens living in the same city. The participants in the experiments received an amount of money and were invited either to keep it or to pass it to others. If they passed it on, the money would be tripled and a portion of it could be returned at the complete discretion of the receivers.

The researchers find that people living in Cuneo, a mid-size city in Piedmont, trusted 50% of the time, while people living in Ragusa, Sicily, trusted only 35% of the time. ''This proves that there is a regional difference in collaborative norms'', says Diego Gambetta, a member of the research team and a pioneer in the study of trust.

But the authors also find that the North and South of Italy are similar in terms of individuals'' generosity and tolerance for financial risk. This suggests that the regional divide may be related more to a social dimension than to individual characteristics: in other words, it depends on the way individuals interact in groups.


This study provides something that has been missing from the debate on the cultural roots of regional divide: a solid empirical basis. The research team travelled with a mobile laboratory in a van across Italy and carried out an original measurement, obtained through field experiments with incentives for participants. This provides high quality data based on actual behaviour in an environment where a host of confounding factors can be controlled for.

For the first time this methodology is applied to North-South differences in the ability to cooperate. It makes it possible to test whether regional differences survive even when incentives are held constant. Since regional disparities still emerge in response to otherwise identical experimental conditions, the implication is that the North-South divide cannot be simply attributed to differences in incentives, but is rooted in differences in expectations and social norms.

Traditional explanations of the Italy''s North-South divide, such as that in the 1884 Jacini Inquiry, have focused on incentives, ranging from geographical and structural problems (for example, distance from Northern Europe, lack of proper roads), inefficient land property institutions (for example, latifundia), rent-seeking informal institutions (for example, political patronage, the mafia) and counterproductive economic policies, which destroy people''s motivation to work hard, invest and innovate.

Instead, this study argues for the existence of an important cultural component that differs from the two best-known interpretations: one in Edward Banfield''s book The Moral Basis of a Backward Society; the other in Robert Putnam''s book Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy.

Banfield claimed that the origin of the North-South gap in Italy lies in the moral flaws of Southerners, whose only concern is with their personal welfare and that of their families with utter disregard for anyone else. Putnam instead called into question collective dispositions towards cooperation and good government, as measured by regionally varying levels of social capital.

The new study shows that the behavioural gap in the ability to cooperate in Italy cannot be accounted for either by proxies of social capital or by ''amoral familism''.


Notes for editors: ''Amoral Familism, Social Capital, or Trust? The Behavioural Foundations of the Italian North-South Divide'' by Maria Bigoni, Stefania Bortolotti, Marco Casari, Diego Gambetta and Francesca Pancotto is published in the August 2016 issue of the Economic Journal.

Maria Bigoni and Marco Casari are at the University of Bologna. Stefania Bortolotti is at the University of Cologne. Diego Gambetta is at the European University Institute in Florence and an official fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Francesca Pancotto is at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. A short video presentation of the research findings (in Italian with English subtitles) is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVkIiF7Hvlg