Quarterly Journal of Political Science > Vol 18 > Issue 1

When the Sorting Hat Sorts Randomly: A Natural Experiment on Culture

Joan Ricart-Huguet, Department of Political Science, Loyola University Maryland, and Program on Ethics, Politics & Economics and Department of Political Science, Yale University, USA, jricart-huguet@loyola.edu , Elizabeth Levy Paluck, Departments of Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton University, USA, epaluck@princeton.edu
Suggested Citation
Joan Ricart-Huguet and Elizabeth Levy Paluck (2023), "When the Sorting Hat Sorts Randomly: A Natural Experiment on Culture", Quarterly Journal of Political Science: Vol. 18: No. 1, pp 39-73. http://dx.doi.org/10.1561/100.00020045

Publication Date: 01 Feb 2023
© 2023 J. Ricart-Huguet and E. L. Paluck
Comparative politics,  Political organizations,  Political psychology,  Behavioral economics,  Experimental economics,  Public opinion,  Social movements,  Collective action
Culturenatural experimentelitessocializationidentityAfrica


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In this article:
What is Culture, and What is Cultural Influence? 
Theory and Hypotheses 
Student Survey and Sample 
Student Results 
Alumni Survey and Sample 
Alumni Results 


Culture is a central but elusive concept in the social sciences, and so are its effects. We leverage a natural experiment in the oldest university in East Africa — a cradle of economic and political elites — where students are randomly assigned to live in halls of residence that have maintained distinct student cultures since the 1970s. A broad consensus at the university characterizes certain halls as sociable and activist, and others as academically minded and respectful. Using an original survey of current students and behavioral games, we find that hall cultures influence a mixture of individual and interpersonal outcomes, specifically students' time preferences, identity, and interpersonal trust and generosity. However, they do not influence students' academic performance, social habits, or political preferences. An alumni survey suggests that cultural influence wanes but some effects endure, notably participation in activism. Our results provide novel evidence that cultural influence extends to several social domains.