Some would have you believe that people are fair-minded, even genuinely concerned for the welfare of others. Others would have you believe we humans are inherently selfish, and that selfishness might even be a good thing. So which is it? That depends on how much energy you've got to think about it, the results of a new experiment suggests.
For decades, a core assumption of economists' theories of individual actions has been that people try to maximize their own interests. That's not to say everyone's a money-grubbing Scrooge necessarily, but it does mean people put their income, happiness, and so on before anyone else's. Some of the strongest evidence against that assumption comes from something known as the dictator game—a game so simple it probably shouldn't be called a game at all. In it, experimenters hand some cash to someone, who must then decide if they want to give any of it to a third person. Remarkably, people give away about a third of that cash on average, a stark contrast with the standard economic prediction.
For decades, a core assumption of economists' theories of individual actions has been that people try to maximize their own interests. That's not to say everyone's a money-grubbing Scrooge necessarily, but it does mean people put their income, happiness, and so on before anyone else's.
Such results are usually taken to mean that people care about being fair, but Anja Achtziger, a psychology professor at Germany's Zeppelin University, figured there must be some limits to fairness. In particular, she and co-authors Carlos Alós-Ferrer and Alexander Wagner are "especially interested to find out what comes first—egoism or altruism—and what kinds of processes determine whether we will behave more selfishly or more altruistic in social situations," she writes in an email.
To investigate those questions, the trio set up 128 students at a Spanish university to play the dictator game, but first they divided the students into two groups and gave both tedious tasks designed to tax their concentration and focus. The first group had to find and cross out all instances of the letter "e" in an excerpt from a physics textbook. The second group also crossed out instances of "e," except when there was another vowel at a distance of two letters in either direction from the "e," or if an "a," "e," "i," or "o"—but not "u"—immediately preceded the "e."
When it came time for the dictator game, players gave about 34 percent of their allotments of seven "experimental currency units," or 1.75 Euros per round. Yet student dictators with the less-taxing assignment gave about 40 percent in the first of 12 rounds of the game, compared with 33 percent for their cognitively weary counterparts. By the end of 12 rounds, however, the two groups were nearly the same, each giving about 30 percent of that round's money to their hypothetical responders.
The results suggest that selfish impulses are more of an automatic response since "depleted dictators exhibit stronger preferences for selfish allocations than non-depleted dictators," who may be more cognitively able to resist selfish impulses, the authors write in the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics. "Depletion does not cause selfishness per se," they argue. Rather, selfishness may be the default, automatic response—and the one that takes energy and self control to overcome.