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Generous with individuals and selfish to the masses

Abstract

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.

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Fig. 1: Overview of the experiment.
Fig. 2: Choices in the Big Robber game.
Fig. 3: Bilateral games and donations.

Data availability

The data underlying this article are publicly available at the Open Science Framework: http://osf.io/q7n2C.

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Acknowledgements

We thank A. Bisin, L. Blume, C. Dave, C. Engel, E. Fehr, U. Fischbacher, G. Grimalda, E. Halali, T. Hare, P. Hernández-Lagos, G. Kirchsteiger, N. Nikiforakis, E. Reuben, K. Ritzberger, S. Schulz-Hardt and M. Sutter for helpful comments and discussions. The authors received no specific funding for this work. A.R. was financed by project AL 1169/4-2 (awarded to C.A.-F.), which was part of the Research Unit ‘Psychoeconomics’ (FOR 1882) of the German Research Foundation (DFG). The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. This manuscript is based on a co-authored contribution that was included in the PhD dissertation of A.R., with permission from C.A.-F. and J.G.-S.

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All authors contributed equally to the project. C.A.-F. planned the project; J.G.-S. and A.R. collected data; C.A.-F., J.G.-S. and A.R. designed the experiment, analysed data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Carlos Alós-Ferrer.

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Supplementary Analyses 1–4, Figs. 1–3, Tables 1 and 2, and Methods 1–4.

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Alós-Ferrer, C., García-Segarra, J. & Ritschel, A. Generous with individuals and selfish to the masses. Nat Hum Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01170-0

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