Altruism versus Egoism in Human Behavior of Mixed Motives: An Experimental Study. (Focus on Homoeconomicus)

Article excerpt

I

Introduction

THE MAINSTREAM of modern economic theory is built upon two crucial assumptions: first, tastes are given; second, individuals are rational, self-interested economic human beings. By and large, the paradigm of rational choice performs well much of the time, but it remains incomplete since it is often observed that people also pursue the interest of others, such as donating money to charity, volunteering to work for nonprofit organizations, voting, etc. Due to these observed instances of apparently altruistic acts, it appears that people may care not only about their own welfare, but also about the welfare of others. Therefore, an important step forward regarding specific issues in individual behavior is to incorporate more considerations of behavior, preferences, and calculations into the paradigm. As a result, a more realistic point of view involving normative features of altruism, which also appears in recent research as group interest, has been taken into account, and the explicit treatment of altruistic behavior has become increasingly important. (1)

This paper presents an experiment investigating people's altruistic behavior in terms of cooperation in a monetary prisoner's dilemma game. We start in Section 1 with an introduction of the notions of altruism from the perspectives of psychology and economics. Section 2 discusses the relevance of altruism and egoism to motives of people's altruistic behavior from a more general and realistic view. Section 3 considers an alternative approach: a conception of altruism is generalized through the prisoner's dilemma game. Section 4 describes the design of our experiment and specifies the experimental findings. Section 5 offers a discussion based on those findings in the experiment. Section 6 comes to a conclusion.

Reasonable Conceptions

Arguments about altruism unavoidably involve human nature, and in turn unavoidably involve how the phenomenon is defined. In the psychological literature, the studies of altruism are introduced in terms of "behavioral" and "intentional" approaches (see, e.g., Krebs 1982 and Rushton 1982). (2) The former approach is mainly concerned with the control and prediction of behavior; its underlying assumption is that the grounds for differential beneficial behavior come from external appearance. By contrast, the latter approach focuses on the way in which people think the internal aspect is the basis of an individual's subjective motives or intentions. As many psychologists and philosophers have suggested, empathy, sympathy, and internalized moral values have played important roles in theories concerning altruism.

It is easier to differentiate among altruistic acts from their appearances than to distinguish real altruism from refined self-interests such as reciprocity, compliance, ingratiation, and other forms of non-altruistic helping behavior. For example, helping an old man cross the street is obviously an altruistic act. It might be done with no concern for personal gain or, alternatively, in the hope of winning praise from others. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between these competing motivations, which are sophisticated internal aspects involving one's antecedent sentiment (empathy, sympathy, benevolence, etc.) and intrinsic values (social norms, moral rules, fairness, reciprocity, etc.).

In the economic literature, the conception of altruism is often associated with a sense of giving. From the perspective of behavior, altruism is viewed as an act of one person providing another person with goods or services without asking for compensation. From the perspective of intention, altruism can be defined as a concern for someone else's economic bundles besides one's own. Concentrating on observed altruistic behavior in regular commercial exchanges, Kurz (1977) proposes a definition of altruism in behavioral terms--an act by one person of providing goods and services to another person without any enforceable contract to receive maximal compensation for his or her act (3)--though he claimed that there exists a subtle social mechanism to provide compensations that will ultimately make altruistic behavior individually optimal. …