Do the Right Thing: Preferences for Moral Behavior, Rather Than Equity or Efficiency per se, Drive Human Prosociality
17 Pages Posted: 10 May 2017 Last revised: 8 Nov 2017
Date Written: November 7, 2017
Decades of experimental research show that some people forgo personal gains to benefit others in unilateral anonymous interactions. To explain these results, behavioral economists typically assume that people have social preferences for minimizing inequality and/or maximizing efficiency (social welfare). Here we present data that are fundamentally incompatible with these standard social preference models. We introduce the “Trade-Off Game” (TOG), where players unilaterally choose between an equitable option and an efficient option. We show that simply changing the labelling of the options to describe the equitable versus efficient option as morally right completely reverses the correlation between behavior in the TOG and play in a separate Dictator Game (DG) or Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD): people who take the action framed as moral in the TOG, be it equitable or efficient, are much more prosocial in the DG and PD. Rather than preferences for equity and/or efficiency per se, our results suggest a generalized morality preference that motivates people to do what they think is morally right. When one option is clearly selfish and the other pro-social (e.g. equitable and/or efficient), as in the DG and PD, the economic outcomes are enough to determine what is morally right. When one option is not clearly more prosocial than the other, as in the TOG, framing resolves the ambiguity about which choice is moral. By also organizing prior findings that framing has large impacts on prosociality in the standard simultaneous PD, but typically not in asynchronous PDs or the DG, this account presents a powerful framework for understanding the basis of human prosocial behavior.
Keywords: Cooperation, Altruism, Prosocial Behavior, Moral Behavior, Social Preferences
JEL Classification: C70, C71, C72, D01, D03, D63, D64
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation