Date of Original Version

8-31-2005

Type

Article

Abstract or Table of Contents

Subjects in economic experiments are often generous. This behavior is often

interpreted as reflecting a preference for equitable, efficient, or otherwise desirable social

outcomes. We show that a considerable proportion of such fair behavior may be driven by a

desire to appear fair without actually wanting a fair outcome. To do so, we first demonstrate a

high frequency of fair behavior in a modification of the standard dictator game, but then show

that fairness decreases substantially when the connection between choices and outcomes is

obfuscated.

Specifically, we show that in a binary version of the dictator game, a majority of

subjects choose the fair and efficient outcome. We then show that subjects playing the same

game instead choose to maximize their own payoffs, at the expense of fairness and efficiency,

when the recipients’ payoffs are uncertain, even if this uncertainty can be costlessly resolved.

We also find that when either of two subjects can sacrifice to implement a fair and efficient

outcome, but neither can ensure fairness or inefficiency, selfishness prevails. Finally, we also

find less fair behavior when unfair outcomes can plausibly result from an external factor

rather than just the dictator’s choice.

Our results indicate that much fair behavior may reflect motivations other than simply

a preference for desirable social outcomes. Instead, much of the behavior in our experiments

is consistent with a desire to pursue self-interest, while maintaining the illusion of behaving

fairly.

Do people share with others because they want to, or because they feel they have to in

certain situations? This paper explores the motivation for fair behavior. In particular, we

explore whether experimental demonstrations of people sacrificing monetary payoffs to

benefit others truly represent evidence of concern for others’ welfare or for desirable social

outcomes. To do so, we use experimental manipulations that allow subjects to leave the

relationship between their actions and others’ outcomes uncertain. These manipulations thus

allow subjects to choose selfishly without knowing whether they negatively impact others’

payoffs. However, in our manipulations subjects may always implement the fair outcome

with certainty if they so desire. We find significantly less generous behavior in these

manipulations relative to a baseline in which the relationship between actions and others’

outcomes is certain, as in the standard dictator game. This finding occurs in spite of the fact

that the recipients are anonymous and cannot retaliate. We conclude that people are often fair

because they intrinsically dislike appearing unfair, either to themselves or others.

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