Egalitarian motives in humans


Participants in laboratory games are often willing to alter others' incomes at a cost to themselves, and this behaviour has the effect of promoting cooperation1,2,3. What motivates this action is unclear: punishment and reward aimed at promoting cooperation cannot be distinguished from attempts to produce equality4. To understand costly taking and costly giving, we create an experimental game that isolates egalitarian motives. The results show that subjects reduce and augment others’ incomes, at a personal cost, even when there is no cooperative behaviour to be reinforced. Furthermore, the size and frequency of income alterations are strongly influenced by inequality. Emotions towards top earners become increasingly negative as inequality increases, and those who express these emotions spend more to reduce above-average earners' incomes and to increase below-average earners' incomes. The results suggest that egalitarian motives affect income-altering behaviours, and may therefore be an important factor underlying the evolution of strong reciprocity5 and, hence, cooperation in humans.

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Figure 1: Mean reduction (a) and augmentation (b) of income by other players in each period as a function of the deviation from the mean income level of the other group members.


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We thank the Center for Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the UC Davis Institute of Government Affairs for generous research support.

Author Contributions The authors are listed alphabetically because each author contributed equally to the design, implementation, analysis and communication of this research.

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Correspondence to James H. Fowler.

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Dawes, C., Fowler, J., Johnson, T. et al. Egalitarian motives in humans. Nature 446, 794–796 (2007).

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