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Shifting the blame to a powerless intermediary


We extend the results of Bartling and Fischbacher (Rev. Econ. Stud. 79(1):67–87, 2012) by showing that, by delegating to an intermediary, a dictator facing an allocation decision can effectively shift blame onto the delegee even when doing so necessarily eliminates the possibility of a fair outcome. Dictators choosing selfishly via an intermediary are punished less and earn greater profits than those who do so directly. Despite being powerless to influence the fairness of the outcome, an intermediary given the choice between two unfair outcomes is punished more than when the dictator chooses one directly. This is not the case when the intermediary merely can initiate the random selection of one of the outcomes. Our findings reinforce and clarify the usefulness of agency as a tool to evade perceived culpability.

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Fig. 1


  1. Apart from the research discussed below, Fershtman and Gneezy (2001) and Hamman et al. (2010) provide evidence of how dictators may use delegation to avoid negative judgment for harmful or selfish behavior.

  2. We refer to the dictator as “she” and the intermediators and recipients as “he”.

  3. Though the experiment instructions avoid all language pertaining to punishment, we follow BF in interpreting the deductions chosen by a recipient as a form of punishment.

  4. This is consistent with the results of the BF’s random treatment, in which the dictator can only pass to a randomization device.

  5. We call the split of the $20 an allocation, whereas a terminal history of the decision process, including both the allocation and the player choosing it, is called an outcome.

  6. Like BF, we used the strategy method to elicit the punishment choices for both R 1 and R 2; each specified a punishment (contingent on him being selected) for each of the five possible outcomes in a randomized order. In contrast, the intermediary only made a decision when called upon after the dictator delegated. We explained to the participants that we increased the show-up fee to $6 from the usual $5 so that a person who received $0 from the dictator game would still have a minimum of $5 if she chose a non-zero deduction.

  7. Details and analysis of the belief-elicitations are available in the online Appendix A.4.

  8. We dropped observations from two subjects who participated in more than one session in the Choice treatment (one dictator, one recipient).

  9. Full instructions and the software are available in the online appendix.

  10. Online Appendix A.1 provides evidence supporting this claim.

  11. Although Fig. 1 alone convincingly shows that the fair allocation is punished much less than any of the unfair allocations selected by any means, we provide hypothesis tests to support this claim in Appendix A.2, available online. Furthermore, in the analysis that follows we do not comment on the punishment for the non-punishing recipient, which is negligible. Online Appendix A.3 provides evidence supporting this claim.

  12. E.g., see Bolton and Ockenfels (2000), Charness and Rabin (2002), Fehr and Schmidt (1999) for the former and Dufwenberg and Kirchsteiger (2004) for the latter.

  13. Charness and Rabin (2002) find that people have little willingness to sacrifice their own payoff to help those who have more than them.

  14. In Appendix A.4, we examine dictator beliefs and find little linking delegation to the perceived difference in punishment between direct versus delegated unfair allocations.


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We wish to thank Antonio Niocolò for many helpful discussions. We are also grateful for valuable comments from Gary Charness, Luca Corazzini, John Hamman, Marco Piovesan, two anonymous referees and the seminar participants at the International Meeting on Experimental and Behavioral Economics (IMEBE) 2011, Barcelona, 4th Maastricht Behavioral and Experimental Economics Symposium (M-BEES 2011), Maastricht and at the Work in Progress Seminar, Dipartimento di Economia Politica, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca, May 2011.

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Correspondence to Regine Oexl.

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Oexl, R., Grossman, Z.J. Shifting the blame to a powerless intermediary. Exp Econ 16, 306–312 (2013).

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  • Intermediation
  • Punishment
  • Delegation
  • Blame shifting