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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Access Nature and 54 other Nature Portfolio journals
Get Nature+, our best-value online-access subscription
$29.99 / 30 days
cancel any time
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 digital issues and online access to articles
$119.00 per year
only $9.92 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Prices vary by article type
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
The data underlying this article are publicly available at the Open Science Framework: http://osf.io/q7n2C.
When something is rotten. The Economist (US edition) (27 July 2002); https://www.economist.com/business/2002/07/25/when-something-is-rotten
Frankel, T. Trust and Honesty: America’s Business Culture at a Crossroad (Oxford Univ. Press, 2006).
Owens, L. A. Confidence in banks, financial institutions and Wall Street, 1971–2011. Public Opin. Q. 76, 142–162 (2012).
Schmidt, H. Das Gesetz des Dschungels (The Law of the Jungle). Die Zeit (4 December 2003).
UK Government The Government’s Response to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (Crown Copyright, 2013).
Krugman, P. Crisis of confidence. The New York Times (14 April 2008).
Forsythe, R., Horowitz, J. L., Savin, N. E. & Sefton, M. Fairness in simple bargaining experiments. Games Econ. Behav. 6, 347–369 (1994).
Güth, W., Schmittberger, R. & Schwarze, B. An experimental analysis of ultimatum bargaining. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 3, 367–388 (1982).
Berg, J., Dickhaut, J. & McCabe, K. Trust, reciprocity and social history. Games Econ. Behav. 10, 122–142 (1995).
Engelmann, D. & Strobel, M. Inequality aversion, efficiency and maximin preferences in simple distribution experiments. Am. Econ. Rev. 94, 857–869 (2004).
Fehr, E. & Schmidt, K. M. A theory of fairness, competition and cooperation. Q. J. Econ. 114, 817–868 (1999).
Bolton, G. E. & Ockenfels, A. ERC: a theory of equity, reciprocity and competition. Am. Econ. Rev. 90, 166–193 (2000).
Charness, G. & Rabin, M. Understanding social preferences with simple tests. Q. J. Econ. 117, 817–869 (2002).
Mazar, N., Amir, O. & Ariely, D. The dishonesty of honest people: a theory of self-concept maintenance. J. Mark. Res. 45, 633–644 (2008).
Gino, F., Ayal, S. & Ariely, D. Contagion and differentiation in unethical behavior: the effect of one bad apple on the barrel. Psychol. Sci. 20, 393–398 (2009).
Mann, H., Garcia-Rada, X., Hornuf, L., Tafurt, J. & Ariely, D. Cut from the same cloth: similarly dishonest individuals across countries. J. Cross Cult. Psychol. 47, 858–874 (2016).
Shalvi, S., Dana, J., Handgraaf, M. J. & de Dreu, C. K. Justified ethicality: observing desired counterfactuals modifies ethical perceptions and behaviour. Organ. Behav. Hum. Decis. Process. 115, 181– 190 (2011).
Fischbacher, U. & Föllmi-Heusi, F. Lies in disguise—an experimental study on cheating. J. Eur. Econ. Assoc. 11, 525–547 (2013).
Rand, D. G., Greene, J. D. & Nowak, M. A. Spontaneous giving and calculated greed. Nature 489, 427–430 (2012).
Zaki, J. & Mitchell, J. P. Intuitive prosociality. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 22, 466–470 (2013).
Cappelen, A. W., Nielsen, U. H., Tungodden, B., Tyran, J.-R. & Wengström, E. Fairness is intuitive. Exp. Econ. 19, 727–740 (2016).
Carter, J. R. & Irons, M. D. Are economists different, and if so, why? J. Econ. Perspect. 5, 171–177 (1991).
Frank, R. H., Gilovich, T. & Regan, D. T. Does studying economics inhibit cooperation? J. Econ. Perspect. 7, 159–171 (1993).
Rubinstein, A. A sceptic’s comment on the study of economics. Econ. J. 116, C1–C9 (2006).
Slonim, R. & Roth, A. E. Learning in high-stakes ultimatum games: an experiment in the Slovak Republic. Econometrica 63, 569–596 (1998).
Cameron, L. A. Raising the stakes in the Ultimatum Game: experimental evidence from Indonesia. Econ. Inq. 37, 47–59 (1999).
Larney, A., Rotella, A. & Barclay, P. Stake size effects in Ultimatum Game and Dictator Game offers: a meta-analysis. Organ. Behav. Hum. Decis. Process. 151, 61–72 (2019).
Andersen, S., Ertaç, S., Gneezy, U., Hoffman, M. & List, J. A. Stakes matter in Ultimatum games. Am. Econ. Rev. 101, 3427–3439 (2011).
Engel, C. Dictator games: a meta study. Exp. Econ. 14, 583–610 (2011).
Adams, J. S. Inequity in social exchange. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 2, 267–299 (Academic Press, 1965).
Nozick, R. Anarchy, State and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974).
Konow, J. Which is the fairest one of all? A positive analysis of justice theories. J. Econ. Lit. 41, 1188–1239 (2003).
Schelling, T. C. in Problems in Public Expenditure Analysis (ed. Chase, S. B.) 127–162 (The Brookings Institute, 1968).
Fetherstonhaugh, D., Slovic, P., Johnson, S. & Friedrich, J. Insensitivity to the value of human life: a study of psychophysical numbing. J. Risk Uncertain. 14, 283–300 (1997).
Butts, M. M., Lunt, D. C., Freling, T. L. & Gabriel, A. S. Helping one or helping many? A theoretical integration and meta-analytic review of the compassion fade literature. Organ. Behav. Hum. Decis. Process. 151, 16–33 (2019).
Jenni, K. & Loewenstein, G. Explaining the identifiable victim effect. J. Risk Uncertain. 14, 235–257 (1997).
Slovic, P. ‘If I look at the mass I will never act’: psychic numbing and genocide. Judgm. Decis. Mak. 2, 79–95 (2007).
Selten, R. in Beiträge zur experimentellen Wirtschaftsforschung (ed. Sauermann, H.) 136–168 (Mohr, 1967).
Brandts, J. & Charness, G. The strategy versus the direct-response method: a first survey of experimental comparisons. Exp. Econ. 14, 375–398 (2011).
Bargh, J. A., Chen, M. & Burrows, L. Automaticity of social behaviour: direct effects of trait construct and stereotype priming on action. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 71, 230–244 (1996).
Nosek, B. A., Hawkins, C. B. & Frazier, R. S. Implicit social cognition: from measures to mechanisms. Trends Cogn. Sci. 15, 152–159 (2011).
Croson, R. T. & Gneezy, U. Gender differences in preferences. J. Econ. Lit. 47, 448–474 (2009).
Dashiell, J. F. Affective value distances as a determinant of aesthetic judgement times. Am. J. Psychol. 50, 57–67 (1937).
Moyer, R. S. & Landauer, T. K. Time required for judgements of numerical inequality. Nature 215, 1519–1520 (1967).
Krajbich, I., Bartling, B., Hare, T. & Fehr, E. Rethinking fast and slow based on a critique of reaction-time reverse inference. Nat. Commun. 6, 7455 (2015).
Oosterbeek, H., Sloof, R. & van de Kuilen, G. Cultural differences in Ultimatum Game experiments: evidence from a meta-analysis. Exp. Econ. 7, 171–188 (2004).
Cappelletti, D., Güth, W. & Ploner, M. Being of two minds: ultimatum offers under cognitive constraints. J. Econ. Psychol. 32, 940–950 (2011).
Declerck, C. H., Kiyonari, T. & Boone, C. Why do responders reject unequal offers in the Ultimatum Game? An experimental study on the role of perceiving interdependence. J. Econ. Psychol. 30, 335–343 (2009).
Johnson, N. D. & Mislin, A. A. Trust games: a meta-analysis. J. Econ. Psychol. 32, 865–889 (2011).
Alger, I. & Weibull, J. W. Homo moralis—preference evolution under incomplete information and assortative matching. Econometrica 81, 2269–2302 (2013).
Myerson, R. B. A model of moral-hazard credit cycles. J. Polit. Econ. 120, 847–878 (2012).
Levitt, S. D. & List, J. A. What do laboratory experiments measuring social preferences reveal about the real world? J. Econ. Perspect. 21, 153–174 (2007).
Bosman, R. & van Winden, F. Emotional hazard in a Power-to-Take experiment. Econ. J. 476, 147–169 (2002).
Bosman, R., Sutter, M. & van Winden, F. The impact of real effort and emotions in the Power-to-Take game. J. Econ. Psychol. 26, 407–429 (2005).
Reuben, E. & van Winden, F. Fairness perceptions and prosocial emotions in the power to take. J. Econ. Psychol. 31, 908–922 (2010).
Abbink, K., Irlenbusch, B. & Renner, E. The moonlighting game: an experimental study on reciprocity and retribution. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 42, 265–277 (2000).
Bardsley, N. Dictator game giving: altruism or artifact? Exp. Econ. 11, 122–133 (2008).
List, J. A. On the interpretation of giving in dictator games. J. Polit. Econ. 115, 482–493 (2007).
Andreoni, J. Warm glow versus cold prickle: the effects of positive and negative framing on cooperation in experiments. Q. J. Econ. 110, 1–21 (1995).
Khadjavi, M. & Lange, A. Doing good or doing harm: experimental evidence on giving and taking in public good games. Exp. Econ. 18, 432–441 (2015).
Bechtel, M. M., Liesch, R. & Scheve, K. F. Inequality and redistribution behaviour in a give-or-take game. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 3611–3616 (2018).
Galizzi, M. M. & Navarro-Martínez, D. On the external validity of social-preference games: a systematic lab–field study. Manag. Sci. 65, 976–1002 (2018).
Zizzo, D. J. & Oswald, A. J. Are people willing to pay to reduce others’ incomes? Ann. Econ. Stat. 63–64, 39–65 (2001).
Zizzo, D. J. Inequality and procedural fairness in a money burning and stealing experiment. Res. Econ. Inequal. 11, 215–247 (2004).
Abbink, K. & Sadrieh, A. The pleasure of being nasty. Econ. Lett. 105, 306–308 (2009).
Abbink, K. & Herrmann, B. The moral costs of nastiness. Econ. Inq. 49, 631–633 (2011).
Karakostas, A. & Zizzo, D. J. Compliance and the power of authority. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 124, 67–80 (2016).
Gardner, R., Ostrom, E. & Walker, J. M. The nature of common-pool resource problems. Ration. Soc. 2, 335–358 (1990).
Blanco, M., Engelmann, D. & Normann, H. T. A within-subject analysis of other-regarding preferences. Games Econ. Behav. 72, 321–338 (2011).
Kümmerli, R., Burton-Chellew, M. N., Ross-Gillespie, A. & West, S. A. Resistance to extreme strategies, rather than prosocial preferences, can explain human cooperation in public goods games. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 10125–10130 (2010).
Schwarz, N., Hippler, D. B., Hans, J. & Strack, F. Response scales: effects of category range on reported behaviour and comparative judgements. Public Opin. Q. 49, 388–395 (1985).
Schwarz, N. Self-reports: how the questions shape the answers. Am. Psychol. 54, 93–105 (1999).
Krawczyk, M. & Le Lec, F. ‘Give me a chance!’ An experiment in social decision under risk. Exp. Econ. 13, 500–511 (2010).
Güth, W. & Tietz, R. Ultimatum bargaining behavior: a survey and comparison of experimental results. J. Econ. Psychol. 11, 417–449 (1990).
Fischbacher, U. z-Tree: Zurich toolbox for ready-made economic experiments. Exp. Econ. 10, 171–178 (2007).
Greiner, B. Subject pool recruitment procedures: organizing experiments with ORSEE. J. Econ. Sci. Assoc. 1, 114–125 (2015).
Walkowitz, G., Hennig-Schmidt, H. & Oberhammer, C. Experimenting over a Long Distance: A Method to Facilitate Intercultural Experiments and its Application to a Trust Game Bonn Econ Discussion Papers No. 17 (ECONSTOR, 2004); http://hdl.handle.net/10419/22894
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information Nature Human Behaviour thanks Conny Wollbrant and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Alós-Ferrer, C., García-Segarra, J. & Ritschel, A. Generous with individuals and selfish to the masses. Nat Hum Behav 6, 88–96 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01170-0