Are members of the blockchain community different from the rest of us?
Many things have been said about members of the blockchain community. From being dismissed as anti-social crypto-bros to being called trustless anarcho-capitalists, members of the blockchain community have been criticized in many different ways. Perhaps the most enduring cliché surrounding the blockchain community is that its members have very low levels of trust towards institutions or even society in general. This cliché is unsurprising given the origins of blockchain technology. In his founding white paper, Satoshi Nakamoto criticized the financial institutions for their role in the subprime crisis of 2008 and argued that blockchain technology offered a more trustworthy alternative while also allowing for more freedom. Such discourse could easily attract disenfranchised members of society who no longer had faith in their political system.
For people who are not personally involved in the blockchain community, it is quite tempting to stop there and hope that the blockchain bug will be contained. Yet, for an evolutionary psychologist studying trust like me, the blockchain community constitutes an intriguing segment of society. Are such people really different from the rest of us? What beliefs make them unique? What reasons could push individuals to seek alternatives to traditional institutions?
To answer these questions, Talia (my amazing intern) and I headed to EthCC, the largest in-person gathering of the blockchain community in 2021. During this 3 days conference in Paris, people from around the world gathered to discuss the latest in Ethereum technology. Talks at the conference ranged from “Democratizing resource allocation for social movements using DAOs” to “Building the open NFT metaverse and its job opportunities”.
Wearing a cardboard sign with a QR code, Talia and I criss-crossed the conference for three days, surveying participants. EthCC attendees could scan the QR code linked to a 5 minute survey measuring their attitudes towards trust, politics, science and the environment. The questions in the survey were derived from the European Value Study and the World Value Survey, such that we could compare the attitudes of the blockchain community to that of the general population. We managed to find a whooping 131 EthCC attendees willing to take our survey. We then matched EthCC attendees to people in the general population in terms of age, sex, education attainment and country of origin to compare their answers. To our knowledge, ours is the first study to conduct a statistical comparison between the blockchain community and the general population.
What did we find? First, we found that a number of clichés about the blockchain community are indeed true:
- EthCC attendees trust people and institutions less
- EthCC attendees care less about the environment
- EthCC are much less satisfied with their country’s political system
- EthCC attendees favor more private property
- EthCC attendees have a more favorable opinion on science and technology
- EthCC attendees think that blockchain technology can solve many problems, such as climate change or inequality
In many ways, the portrait of the anti-social anti-system blockchain individual turns out to be true. However, there are some noticeable departures from this cliché. Indeed, our results also show that:
- EthCC attendees were not more right-wing than the general population (if anything they were more left-wing, although the difference was not statistically significant)
- EthCC attendees trust people they meet for the first time or foreigners more so than the general population does
- EthCC attendees expressed high levels of trust in the scientific community
- EthCC attendees were similar to the general population in terms of how much income redistribution or economic competition they approved of
This study thus paints a more complex portrait of the blockchain community. One where individuals are very tolerant of people they have never met, hold progressive values, hope to solve big societal challenges, yet are anti-system. Members of the blockchain community may be far less libertarian as some people view them to be. They are simply seeking new ways to organize society, through institutions that they argue are more democratic.
Of course, there are many limitations to this study. For example, the extent to which we can generalize to the whole blockchain community the answers from a few EthCC participants. Our sample may also be biased, as more anti-social attendees may not have taken our survey, leading us to underestimate the trust gap between the blockchain community and the general population. This study should be replicated in different corners of the blockchain world, to gain more representativity. (Check out the full research article to get more details on methods, results and limitations.)
You may wonder why you should care about the attitudes of the blockchain community. First, understanding their attitudes may help us understand why they decided to join the community, and who will likely join next. Indeed, as trust in institutions continues to decline around the world, we might expect more and more people to turn to alternative systems such as blockchain-powered institutions. Second, the community’s attitudes may also give some clue as to where the technology is heading next. Beyond financial applications, we should expect blockchain entrepreneurs to create more solutions for two complete strangers to work together and develop more alternatives to traditional institutions. Finally, the blockchain community itself could benefit from understanding the attitudes of its members and how they might differ from the way the community is usually perceived. Indeed, despite all the talk about building a trustless system, the blockchain community will still need to gain people’s confidence for the technology to be widely adopted.
Special thanks to Talia Laizeau for all her work on this project, to Bettina Boon-Falleur for allowing us to attend EthCC, and to all the wonderful people we met at the conference and who took the time to answer our survey.