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People happily steal from groups even if they are generous one-on-one

Would you share or steal?

PURPLE MARBLES/Alamy

Most people play fair in lab tests where they can share or steal small sums of money – yet in real life, unfairness and cheating is common.

Now, the apparent contradiction has a new explanation. In lab experiments where people are able to take money from groups of people, they nearly always do, but the same individuals tend to be fair when dealing with just one other person.

Economists have long investigated people’s behaviour through simple tests in the lab, such as the two-person “dictator game” in which one person is given a small sum of money and they choose whether to give some of it to their playing partner, who they haven’t met before. Typically, most people give some away, although they get nothing in return, suggesting we have an intrinsic sense of fairness.

In real life, though, unfairness is common, ranging from office workers failing to contribute their share of communal snacks through to large-scale financial fraud. We often assume that people who cheat in such ways are a minority, or even that antisocial people are drawn to careers where they can exploit others, says Carlos Alós-Ferrer at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

To investigate, Alós-Ferrer’s team designed a new monetary test called the Big Robber game, where any unfair actions affect larger numbers of people.

The researchers asked groups of 32 people to play the dictator game and two other similar games in pairs, and the results were the same as those usually seen, in that most people acted generously.

Half the group were also asked if they would like to rob some of the earnings of the other half, which totalled €200, on average. They could take half the amount, a third, a tenth or none of it. The team repeated this process with 640 people in total.

Of the 320 individuals given the robbery option, 98 per cent took at least some of the money and 56 per cent took half. To save on costs, the researchers didn’t let everyone actually go home with their chosen amount, but one of the 16 robbers in each group was randomly selected to receive this sum.

The findings suggest that people can be fair to individuals and selfish to larger groups, says Alós-Ferrer. “Human beings are perfectly capable of displaying both kinds of behaviour.”

People may act differently in real life to how they do in lab games, but the findings suggest economists should investigate group interactions as well as two-person ones, he says.

Journal reference: Nature Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-021-01170-0

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