Jeu de confiance

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On the Interpretation of Giving in Dictator Games

John A. List
University of Chicago and National Bureau of Economic Research

The dictator game represents a workhorse within experimental economics, frequently used to test theory and to provide insights into the prevalence of social preferences. This study explores more closely the dictator game and the literature’s preferred interpretationof its meaning by collecting data from nearly 200 dictators across treatments that varied the action set and the origin of endowment. The action set variation includes choices in which the dictator can “take” money from the other player. Empirical results question the received interpretation of dictator game giving: many fewer agents are willing to transfer money when the action set includestaking. Yet, a result that holds regardless of action set composition is that agents do not ubiquitously choose the most selfish outcome. The results have implications for theoretical models of social preferences, highlight that “institutions” matter a great deal, and point to useful avenues for future research using simple dictator games and relevant manipulations.

The past two decades havewitnessed an explosion of experimentation with ultimatum, dictator, and trust games.1 The common interpretation
I thank Steve Levitt for urging me to complete this study. The editor and two anonymous referees provided very insightful comments that helped to shape the manuscript. Remarks of Glenn Harrison, Emir Kamenica, Uri Simonsohn, and Chad Syverson improved the paper considerably. During the vettingprocess I learned of a fascinating experiment by Bardsley (2005) that predated my experiment. As discussed in the text, Bardsley uses a similar framing exercise and finds qualitatively similar results. 1 The ultimatum game, as originally reported by Guth, Schmittberger, and Schwarze (1982), is a two-stage game in which two people, a proposer and a responder, bargain over a fixed amount of money. Inthe first stage, the proposer offers a split of the money, and in the second stage, the responder decides to accept or reject the offer. If it is accepted, each player receives money according to the offer; if rejected, each player receives nothing. The dictator game is a simple variant of the ultimatum game: strategic concerns are absent
[ Journal of Political Economy, 2007, vol. 115, no. 3]2007 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0022-3808/2007/11503-0004$10.00


giving in dictator games


of the empirical results is echoed in Henrich et al.’s (2004) abstract: “Over the past decade, research in experimental economics has emphatically falsified the textbook representation of Homo economicus, with hundreds of experiments that have suggested that people carenot only about their own material payoffs but also about such things as fairness, equity, and reciprocity.” Such results have also stimulated an impressive array of theoretical work (for models of reciprocity, see Rabin [1993]; for models of inequity aversion, see Fehr and Schmidt [1999] and Bolton and Ockenfels [2000]; on altruism and spite, see Levine [1998]). In this study, I explore moreclosely the dictator game and the literature’s preferred interpretation of its meaning. The first dictator game experiment in economics is due to Kahneman, Knetsch, and Thaler (1986), who gave subjects a choice (albeit hypothetical) of dictating either an even split of $20 ($10 each) with another student or an uneven split ($18, $2), favoring themselves. Three-quarters of the students opted for theequal split. In an effort to learn more about first-mover play in ultimatum games, Forsythe et al. (1994) later executed the dictator game with real stakes and made the action set less discrete and found similar results: a mean allocation of roughly 20 percent of the endowment. As Camerer (2003, 57, table 2.4) points out, a plethora of subsequent dictator experimental studies replicate these...