In recent years, the general public has steadily lost confidence in financial institutions, economic authorities and in particular business leaders. People believe that key economic players will do anything for profit, including harming large groups of human beings.
And yet modern behavioral economics and psychology tell a completely different story: Lab data has shown that people willingly share monetary gains with others, dislike inequalities, and are very often generous. Recent evidence shows that the levels of dishonesty as measured in some lab tasks are surprisingly low. The message is that people are prosocial and, if given the chance, just cheat a little.
Possibility to steal half of the winnings of others
How can the two observations be simultaneously true? Are high-level economic players just different? To find out, Carlos Alós-Ferrer, NOMIS Professor for Decision and Neuroeconomic Theory at the University of Zurich and his team designed the Big Robber Game, an experimental setting with 640 participants in a sample of standard students. Students were placed in groups of 32, where all subjects were engaged in paid activity and earned the same amount of money. Half of the participants, the robbers, were given the opportunity to anonymously steal half of the earnings of the 16 other members of their group (and one of the 16 robbers’ decisions was actually carried out), which corresponded to plus or minus 100 euros. But they could also steal less, say a third, a tenth, or nothing at all. So what did they do?
Extremely ruthless in anonymous groups
Over half of all thieves went to the extreme and took the maximum they could, which was half of everyone else’s winnings. Over 80 percent took a third or more, and hardly anyone refused to steal. The students revealed an overwhelming desire to inflict significant financial harm on a large group of other people. Moreover, the decision to take the maximum was taken on average faster than the decision to abstain, revealing a weaker moral struggle in the former case.
However, the same study participants displayed predominantly prosocial behavior in standard bilateral play. When asked how they wanted to share 10 euros with just one other participant, they voluntarily transferred money, even when the other person was powerless to fight back if no money came. In general, their actions revealed that they did not like inequality. “Thus, the same people have shown selfishness in large, high-impact decisions affecting a large group and generosity in small, low-stake bilateral interactions,” Alós-Ferrer sums up. “This behavior arose spontaneously in our student body, with no significant differences due to gender or field of study. Therefore, there is no need to argue about the difference between high level economic players. The roots of corporate scandals seem to be in all of us.
Trade-off between personal gain and other concerns
The finding that people behave selfishly towards a large group while being generous to individuals suggests that it may be easier to harm multiple individuals than to harm just one, consistent with existing evidence that people are. more willing to help one individual rather than several. According to the authors, the study also reflects the trade-off between personal gain and other concerns: when faced with an individual in a two-way game, appropriating a given amount of money can make a big interpersonal difference. When one appropriates the income of a large group of people, the same personal gain implies a smaller percentage difference, and it is therefore more likely to compensate for the aversion to inequality. Alós-Ferrer: “In economically relevant situations, many human decision-makers might be willing to inflict significant harm on a relatively large number of people for their personal gain, provided that the gain is of sufficient magnitude. Even more striking, in Western societies, 100 euros could already be sufficient.
Reference: Alós-Ferrer C, García-Segarra J, Ritschel A. Generous with individuals and selfish with the masses. Nat Hum behaves. 2021: 1-9. do I: 10.1038 / s41562-021-01170-0
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