Thursday, September 3, 2009

People are nasty

We all know that doing better then others is an integral part of our satisfactions. Thus when we think about utility functions, at least in some contexts, it is important to consider not just absolute outcomes but also relative ones. Indeed, there is for example evidence that people are willing to lose something only to hurt (more) others. Presumable this raises their utility.

Klaus Abbink and Benedikt Herrmann push this further with an interesting experiment. They let people chose to pay in order to probabilistically hurt someone else in a game where Nature may hurt the other anyway. And when Nature is in play, people hurt much more each other, and also expect this to happen more. The moral cost is clearly lower, as one can always defend oneself by pretending Nature did it. Strangely, this is even prevalent when there is complete anonymity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the result shows not so much how nasty people are, but how experiments inherently drive "action" even if it runs counter to people's "normal" behavior.
First off, moral norms tell you not to punish, but these people sit in a paid experiment and might wonder and possibly be a bit uncomfortable about "doing nothing". The norm that experimenters push in their labs, after all, is attention and participation (that includes forbidding Blackberries and iPods, patrolling the lab, forbidding speech etc.). And the second problem: experiments are generally just a little - well, boring for the subjects. Inaction is strategically equivalent to action, but at least you got something to do in the half hour sitting there (without your Blackberry).