Unselfish Alibis Increase Choices of Selfish Autonomous Vehicles

51 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2023 Last revised: 13 Apr 2023

See all articles by Julian De Freitas

Julian De Freitas

Harvard University - Business School (HBS)

Date Written: February 3, 2023


Human drivers routinely make implicit tradeoffs between their selfish interests and the safety of passengers, as when they perform a rolling stop in order to reach their destination faster. Here I explore whether they are comfortable with autonomous vehicles (AVs) that encode similar selfish preferences or prefer egalitarian AVs. Across seven studies involving 5,584 participants, I find evidence suggesting that consumers only express egalitarian preferences for AVs when their reputations are at stake, while otherwise evincing selfish preferences. Tellingly, they are more likely to make selfish choices when provided with a plausibly unselfish pretext for doing so, which I call an ‘unselfish alibi’. Firms wishing to appeal to selfish consumer instincts are better off doing so using unselfish alibis than overtly, even when targeting existing or prospective customers. I also explore how policymakers and competitors can encourage unselfish choices even when unselfish alibis are available, by providing options that implicitly undermine the need to make a selfish-prosocial dichotomy in the first place. The results suggest a fundamental tension between the vision of safe AVs and selfish consumer preferences, raising concerns about whether appeals to these preferences will jeopardize the promise of safer roads.

Suggested Citation

De Freitas, Julian, Unselfish Alibis Increase Choices of Selfish Autonomous Vehicles (February 3, 2023). Harvard Business School Marketing Unit Working Paper No. 23-043, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4347328 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4347328

Julian De Freitas (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Business School (HBS) ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

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