Exploiting moral wiggle room: experiments demonstrating an illusory preference for fairness

Abstract

This paper explores whether generosity in experiments is truly evidence of concern for desirable social outcomes. We conduct an experiment using a binary version of the dictator game. We introduce several treatments in which subjects are able to leave the relationship between their actions and resulting outcomes uncertain, either to themselves or to another subject influenced by those actions, thus giving subjects the moral “wiggle room” to behave self-interestedly. We find significantly less generous behavior in these manipulations, relative to a baseline in which the relationship between actions and outcomes is transparent. We conclude that many subjects behave fairly in the baseline case mainly because they intrinsically dislike appearing unfair, either to themselves or others.

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Correspondence to Jason Dana.

Additional information

We thank Cristina Bicchieri; Iris Bohnet; Colin Camerer; Robyn Dawes; Ernst Fehr; George Loewenstein; John Patty; Charlie Plott; Matthew Rabin; seminar participants at Carnegie Mellon, Berkeley, Cornell, Emory, and Princeton; participants at the 2003 Public Choice, 2003 ESA, 2003 SJDM, and 2004 BDRM meetings; and anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions. We greatly appreciate the access to resources at the Pittsburgh Experimental Economics Laboratory (PEEL) at the University of Pittsburgh. This research was funded by a Carnegie Mellon Berkman Faculty Development Grant to Weber and a Russell Sage Behavioral Economics Small Grant to Dana.

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Dana, J., Weber, R.A. & Kuang, J.X. Exploiting moral wiggle room: experiments demonstrating an illusory preference for fairness. Economic Theory 33, 67–80 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00199-006-0153-z

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Keywords

  • Fairness
  • Experiments
  • Dictator games

JEL Classification Numbers

  • C91
  • D63
  • D64