Digitalisation and its networking opportunities have given the sharing economy an unprecedented boost. When many users share homes, gardens, tools and many other goods, this offers not only economic advantages for the individual user, but also ecological advantages by reducing overall consumption. The expensive car, for instance, will no longer be parked in a garage 90 per cent of the time.
However, the new world of sharing also requires individual participants to respect the rules of the game. The companies, platforms and communities that organise access to the shared amenities have a variety of measures at their disposal to promote the necessary cooperative behaviour among their users. In the FWF-funded project “Collaborative Consumption & Sharing Economy”, researchers at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration (WU) have developed a theoretical framework for these measures and examined their effectiveness using various methods. The central issue in this context: what rules and communication strategies are particularly conducive to increasing cooperation in the shared use of goods?
Cooperation with the organisation and other sharing participants
“Our research is based on a previous project in which we developed a model on trust and regulation in the relationship between taxpayers and tax authorities. We have transferred this model to the conditions of the sharing economy,” explains the principal investigator Eva Hofmann, who has since switched from WU in Vienna to the University of Graz and the Danube University Krems. “Taxpayers have obligations towards the tax authorities. The participants in the sharing economy on the other hand have to behave cooperatively not only towards a company or institution, but also towards the other users. That makes it a very complex subject matter.” In addition, different organisational forms shape these interdependencies differently. For the project, the researchers examined both companies, such as the car-sharing provider car-2-go and Airbnb-style platforms, as well as communities that are supported solely by their members – such as community gardens.
Hofmann distinguishes between two types of regulation that have an impact on cooperative behaviour: hard regulation uses punishment and rewards to achieve the desired behaviour. “A car-sharing company may for instance impose fines in the form of additional charges if the car is returned with an empty tank or uncleaned. If the user always complies with every requirement, the company may grant bonus points which can be converted into benefits.” But then, there is also a soft regulation. Hofmann: “It may use information being passed on in a targeted way or it may come in the shape of special expertise or a role model function.”
Surveys, experiments and field research
The researchers tried to get to the bottom of how these types of regulation work by using several methodological approaches. These include focus groups, in which they initiated debates on the use of sharing services, as well as a series of surveys of relevant groups or laboratory experiments in which test subjects choose a certain behaviour in simulations. The team also conducted field research, in which, for example, time spent with a sharing community was monitored over a certain period of time.
When the team investigated the communication strategies on the websites of relevant sharing providers they found that these work very strictly with hard regulation including sanctions for misconduct. “This was surprising for us. We had expected that more soft regulation would be used, relying on information and role models,” explains Hofmann. “For, in the laboratory experiments, in which sharing situations with different combinations of regulations were played out, we found that soft regulation produces better results in promoting cooperative behaviour – and this is true regardless of what organisational form the sharing takes.”
Rule-based and lived cooperation
Experiments with community gardens, in which two gardens were subject to different regulations revealed another phenomenon: “Both hard and soft regulation quickly lost relevance. Nonetheless we saw a trend emerging that people do actually want clear structures and responsibilities, as they exist in an association, for instance. In the laboratory experiments, the test persons adhered very closely to the rules. In practice, however, it is also important to live the cooperation in a communicative way and to exchange ideas on an ongoing basis,” Hofmann notes in conclusion.
In their surveys, the researchers also asked about the motivation that induced people to look for sharing offers. One of the findings of this study says that motives such as environmental protection or heightened social exchanges are less important than assumed for the participants. “While these aspects definitely play a role, they are not the most important factor,” says Hofmann. “Ultimately, it is always the financial argument that takes priority.”
Eva Hofmann, who studied psychology in Vienna, held a postdoc position at the Competence Centre for Empirical Research Methods and an assistant professorship at the Institute for International Marketing Management at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration until 2021. She now works at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Graz and at the Danube University Krems. Between 2017 and 2021 she was the principal investigator in the project “Collaborative Consumption & Sharing Economy”, which received around EUR 350,000 in funding from the FWF.
scilog – the magazine of the Austrian Science Fund FWF