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Home / News / Study by Carlos Alós-Ferrer shows people are generous with individuals and selfish to the masses

Study by Carlos Alós-Ferrer shows people are generous with individuals and selfish to the masses

Carlos Alós-Ferrer, who is NOMIS Professor for Decision and Neuroeconomic Theory at the University of Zurich, and his colleagues have published a study indicating that human beings can simultaneously be generous with others and selfish with large groups. The paper, which was published in Nature Human Behaviour, is summarized by Alós-Ferrer below.

Selfish to the Masses

Financial scandals or just normal human behaviour? Most people are willing to steal half the earnings of a large group if their personal gain exceeds $100, even though the very same people are generous towards single individuals.

Carlos Alós-Ferrer

In the recent years, the general public has been steadily losing confidence in financial institutions, economic authorities, and very particularly in corporate managers. We have all seen the demonstrators’ banners at high-level economic summits. And who can blame them? A long chain of corporate scandals going back to the 1990s continues today, and many people around the world grudgingly hold a view that key economic actors will do anything for profits, including harming large groups of fellow human beings.

And yet, modern behavioural economics and psychology tell a completely different story. For decades now, laboratory data has been piling up, showing that people willingly share monetary gains with others, dislike inequality, and are very often generous. For example, in the celebrated Dictator Game, people voluntarily share a monetary amount with another experimental participant, even though the latter is powerless to retaliate if he or she receives nothing. More recent evidence shows that, around the world, dishonesty levels as measured by certain laboratory tasks are surprisingly low. The message is that people are prosocial and, if given opportunity, cheat just a little.

This puzzled us. How can both observations be simultaneously true? Are high-level economic actors simply different? After all, they self-select into certain professions, and those professions require training in economics and finance, so there might be both a self-selection effect and an indoctrination effect. Or is that just something we want to believe, to exonerate ourselves?

Suppose you are part of a group, and everybody has been engaging in some remunerated activity. Each of you has earned some money. All interactions are anonymous, and your identity will never be revealed. Now, suppose you are given the opportunity to steal half the earnings of 16 other people, which will be more or less 100 Euros (or Pounds, or Dollars). You can also steal less, say one third or just one tenth. Or nothing at all. What do you do? No, really, what do you do?

This is the Big Robber Game, which is the focus of our article in Nature Human Behaviour. We ran it in a large laboratory experiment (N=640) with a standard student sample, as those used in behavioural economics. People engaged in standard bilateral games (including the Dictator Game and others) commonly used to show that human beings are essentially generous with other individuals. But half of the participants, the robbers, had to make the decision of whether they would steal half the earnings of the other participants (16 of them per robber) if given the opportunity.

Continue reading this Nature Human Behaviour summary: Selfish to the Masses

Read the Nature Human Behaviour publication: Generous with individuals and selfish to the masses

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Nature research highlight: ‘Robber’ experiment tests generosity — with sobering results

New Scientist: People happily steal from groups even if they are generous one-on-one



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