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Friday, April 22, 2022

Generous with individuals and selfish to the masses

Alós-Ferrer, C.; García-Segarra, J.; Ritschel, A.
(2022). Nature Human Behaviour, 6(1):88-96.


The seemingly rampant economic selfishness suggested by many recent corporate scandals is at odds with empirical results from behavioural economics, which demonstrate high levels of prosocial behaviour in bilateral interactions and low levels of dishonest behaviour. We design an experimental setting, the ‘Big Robber’ game, where a ‘robber’ can obtain a large personal gain by appropriating the earnings of a large group of ‘victims’. In a large laboratory experiment (N = 640), more than half of all robbers took as much as possible and almost nobody declined to rob. However, the same participants simultaneously displayed standard, predominantly prosocial behaviour in Dictator, Ultimatum and Trust games. Thus, we provide direct empirical evidence showing that individual selfishness in high-impact decisions affecting a large group is compatible with prosociality in bilateral low-stakes interactions. That is, human beings can simultaneously be generous with others and selfish with large groups.

From the Discussion

Our results demonstrate that socially-relevant selfishness in the large is fully compatible with evidence from experimental economics on bilateral, low-stake games at the individual level, without requiring arguments relying on population differences (in fact, we found no statistically significant differences in the behavior of participants with or without an economics background). The same individuals can behave selfishly when interacting with a large group of other people while, at the same time, displaying standard levels of prosocial behavior in commonly-used laboratory tasks where only one other individual is involved. Additionally, however, individual differences in behavior in the Big Robber Game correlate with individual selfishness in the DG/UG/TG, i.e., Extreme Robbers gave less in the DG, offered less in the UG, and transferred less in the TG than Moderate Robbers.

The finding that people behave selfishly toward a large group while being generous toward individuals suggests that harming many individuals might be easier than harming just one, in line with received evidence that people are more willing to help one individual than many. It also reflects the tradeoff between personal gain and other-regarding concerns encompassed in standard models of social preferences, although this particular implication had not been demonstrated so far. When facing a single opponent in a bilateral game, appropriating a given monetary amount can result in a large interpersonal difference. When appropriating income from a large group of people, the same personal gain involves a smaller percentual difference. Correspondingly, creating a given level of inequality with respect to others results in a much larger personal gain when income is taken from a group than when it is taken from just another person, and hence it is much more likely to offset the disutility from inequality aversion in the former case.