Moral Wiggle Room

If Bob and Alice prefer vanilla to chocolate ice cream then when given the choice we wouldn’t be surprised to see each of them choosing vanilla.  Now suppose that Bob and Alice are given the following choice, if either chooses vanilla they both get vanilla only if both choose chocolate do they receive chocolate.   If Bob and Alice prefer vanilla to chocolate it seems plausible that they will continue to choose vanilla.  But suppose that we observe Bob and Alice choosing chocolate in the second experiment.  How might we explain this?

Imagine that chocolate is considered sinful and vanilla is thought to be nice.  Bob and Alice might want to be sinful but they choose nice in the first experiment to avoid social condemnation.  In the second experiment, however, Bob and Alice are sinful only when both sin.  True preferences are revealed only when no individual can be singled out for condemnation.

That’s the setup of one of the clever experiments in an excellent new paper, Exploiting Moral Wiggle Room, except the experiment isn’t about chocolate and vanilla ice cream it’s about fairness in a division game.  In the first experiment Alice and Bob must each decide whether to choose $6 for themselves and $1 for a third party (Cindy) or $5 for themselves and $5 for Cindy.  In this experiment most Alice and Bobs choose to be nice, they divide "fairly" with Cindy.  Many researchers have concluded that Alice and Bob must have a preference for niceness.

But put Alice and Bob together in the second experiment and Alice and Bob are each much more likely to choose the sinful division, $6 and $1.  Alice and Bob may prefer chocolate after all.

Read the paper for several other experiments along these lines.  The implications for societal organization are profound.

Hat tip to Robin Hanson.


Anyone who has worked on a personnel selection committee knows this effect only too well.

I haven't read the paper, so I don't know whether they control for this, but another possible explanation is that Alice is more concerned about Bob's utility than about Cindy's and chooses accordingly. There is plenty of behavioral research showing that individuals expect others to be more greedy and value fairness less than they do themselves. So if Alice thinks Bob would strongly prefer the $6/$1 split, and Bob thinks Alice would strongly prefer it also, they may choose that option in spite of their own individual preferences. This could operate in addition to the authors' moral license story, or might simply serve as Bob and Alice's conscious justification for their choices.

This reminds me of various jokes about going to restaurants on Yom Kippur (you are supposed to fast) confident in the knowledge that anyone who sees you there is also breaking the rules.

I wrote:
In the modification Tyler describes, two players can collude to gain $1 each by eating $2 of the social welfare.

That should be "Alex", not "Tyler". Sorry for the misattribution.

Is there a way to edit comments on Typepad? That's what I would usually do on blogger or LJ.

This experiment just says what I already knew. That lots of people chose their own self-interest over the greater good.

I will take Half Sigma and Bill Wallace's comments as a compliment to how well I framed the argument! If you think about it, however, the result certainly isn't obvious because a large literature has developed on "preferences for fairness". The experiment shows that it's only a preference to be seen as fair which is quite a different thing.

I second Michael's comments which are spot on.


Slocum: "I'm certain that people are more likely to behave selfishly when their acts are unknown rather than known -- but that was never really in doubt, was it?"
Well, it was kind of never considered in this literature before, as in typical experiments, actions directly translate into payoffs (for yourself and/or your opponent). And if you think about it, in typical experiments the subjects' acts are unknown in the sense that the other players will never know who it was that took a certain action, or even who the other players were. So in that sense it's surprising that additional 'noise' leads to people being more selfish, as this entails that otherwise they would have cared about what an unknown stranger thinks about them...

Alex says

"however, the result certainly isn't obvious because a large literature has developed on "preferences for fairness".

I contend that the latter doesn't prove the former. Just because a bunch of people spent a bunch of time looking for something that they really hope is there doesn't mean that it's not obvious that it isn't.

I am not sure how I feel about these concepts. I do agree that individuals act differently when they are in groups. I think that it was more socially acceptable for Alice to choose to split the money evenly when she was by herself but when Alice making a decision along with Bob, they could choose to be selfish together. As little as one dollar really is, sometimes people can be greedy enough. The thing is, is that Bob can't judge Alice and Alice can't judge Bob because they both made the same selfish decision.

hey, what's up?

thank you

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