Many past studies may have overestimated human generosity, if a new piece of research is any clue.
The study recreated a game often used in laboratory experiments to assess people’s willingness to give away money, or their altruism.
Participants are typically granted anonymity. But the new study was designed to afford an assurance of anonymity even more believable than usual. It was set up so that participants would be unaware any experiment was even happening—or that any decision would even be counted, let alone watched.
Under this seemingly greater level of secrecy, the level of giving plunged to zero.
The findings suggest that the levels of altruism recorded in previous experiments may be “substantially inflated,” wrote the researchers, Jeffrey Winking and Nicholas Mizer of Texas A&M University.
The results are published in the July issue of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
The findings, they added, highlight the idea that “anonymity” and “secrecy” can be different things, because any visible experimental situation can threaten a participant with “very subtle cues” that the freedom from prying eyes is not absolute.
The altruism game, known as the Dictator Game, along with many variants, is routine fare in psychology and economics experiments. Usually participants are given some money, along with instructions that they may share some of it with an unknown, randomly assigned partner if they wish. Anonymity is often, though not always, promised.
In the new version, people waiting for buses near Las Vegas casinos were approached by an apparently random stranger. This person would offer some free casino chips, convertible to money, saying he didn’t have time to cash them in. In some cases, this stranger would also suggest that the recipient could share the chips with a second stranger, who was standing some distance away with his back turned, chatting into a cell phone. Both strangers were really actors.
The chip-giver would then leave, and the second stranger would put down his phone and come to the bus stop. The chip recipient’s next move was then secretly noted.
In the standard Dictator Game, the overall average donation based on past studies is 28 percent of the total, with nearly two-thirds of people offering at least something, Winking and Mizer wrote.
But in their “real-life” re-enactment of the game, no one gave a thing.
One possible reason might have been reluctance to initiate a conversation with a stranger, the researchers speculated. However, two participants did start a conversation with the cell phone guy—just to relate their stroke of good luck.