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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

Valerio Capraro

Middlesex University

David G. Rand

Yale University

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

Capraro, Valerio and Rand, David G., Do the Right Thing: Preferences for Moral Behavior, Rather Than Equity or Efficiency per se, Drive Human Prosociality (November 7, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Valerio Capraro

Middlesex University ( email )

The Burroughs
London, NW4 4BT
United Kingdom

David Rand (Contact Author)

Yale University ( email )

New Haven, CT 06520
United States


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