Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Children's Altruism in Public Good and Dictator Experiments

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Children's Altruism in Public Good and Dictator Experiments

Article excerpt


We examine the development of altruistic and free-riding behavior in 6-12-year-old children. We find that the level of altruistic behavior in children is similar to that of adults but that repetition has a different effect. Younger children's contributions tend to increase in later rounds of the experiments, whereas the contributions of older children, like those of adults, tend to decline. Group attachment is associated with higher contributions. Contributions in a subsequent dictator experiment are correlated with first-round contributions in the public good experiment, but are not strongly correlated with last-round contributions. (JEL H41)


Research on altruism among adults using linear public good experiments has established a number of interesting results. Adults are initially far more generous than would be true if they were motivated by plain selfishness. With repetition, most gradually start to free-ride, but many continue to contribute substantial amounts, suggesting that a taste for altruism is, if not universal, at least widespread. The existence of such a preference is confirmed by a wide variety of behaviors in nonexperimental settings. Since altruistic behavior is an important feature of the economy, a natural, and important, question is to ask were it comes from. As a first step toward addressing this question, in this article we examine the behavior of 6- to 12-year-old children in public good experiments.

We begin by comparing the extent of altruistic behavior in children with that of adults. If even young children behave in a way similar to adults, the taste for altruism must be, if not innate, at least determined by very early experiences. Next, since heterogeneity in altruistic behavior may be due to differences in these experiences, we test whether the variance in children's altruistic behavior is correlated with demographic and other variables. The observed decline in contribution among adults suggests that at least some adults learn the free-riding strategy over the course of the experiment or that confusion regarding the protocol is reduced with repeated play. There is evidence that adults are confused by the experimental protocol, and it is plausible that children might be even more so. To determine whether learning about either the free-riding strategy or about the protocol is age-related, we investigate how behavior in this experiment differs across children of different ages. Finally, to test whether the linear public goods game is a reasonable way of studying altruism in children, we conduct a second test of altruism, based on the dictator game, on a subset of the original subjects.

In a typical linear public goods experiment subjects are recruited and put into groups of N members, where N is generally between 4 and 10. Subjects play either a preannounced or randomly determined number of rounds. At the beginning of each round, subjects are endowed with experiment currency that is exchanged for cash at the end of the experiment. They then must decide whether to keep it or to contribute any portion of it to the group. The money given to the group is multiplied by a number [alpha] greater than 1 but less than N, and then the total is divided equally among the group members. In this game, the individually rational strategy (for selfish preferences) is to donate nothing in each round, while the Pareto optimal result is for each person to donate everything.

Ledyard [1995] provides more information on these experiments and summarizes the conclusions. The result is typically that people donate between one-third and two-thirds of their endowments to the group, that they donate more if [alpha]/N (the marginal private return) is larger, and that donations decrease with repetition, though not to zero. These results are generally taken as proof that the subjects have a taste for altruism. The overwhelming majority of these experiments have been conducted using college undergraduates, although one of the earliest studies, Marwell and Ames [1981] used high school students. …

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