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The external validity of giving in the dictator game

A field experiment using the misdirected letter technique

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We investigate the external validity of giving in the dictator game by using the misdirected letter technique in a within-subject design. First, subjects participated in standard dictator games (double blind) conducted in labs in two different studies. Second, after four to five weeks (study 1) or two years (study 2), we delivered prepared letters to the same subjects. The envelopes and the contents of the letters were designed to create the impression that they were misdirected by the mail delivery service. The letters contained 10 Euros (20 Swiss Francs in study 2) corresponding to the endowment of the in-lab experiments. We observe in both studies that subjects who showed other-regarding behavior in the lab returned the misdirected letters more often than subjects giving nothing, suggesting that in-lab behavior is related to behavior in the field.

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  1. Generally, studies dealing with field experiments are still rare. Card et al. (2011) counted studies reporting the results of field experiments that were published in one of the top five economic journals (AER, ECON, JPE, QJE or RES) during the last 35 years (1975 to 2010). They found 84 studies overall, most of them (particular until 2005) in the field of labor economics. Only eight (starting with a study by Frey and Meier 2004) are dealing with other-regarding preferences or cooperation.

  2. Letters to a “Sex Research Project” have been opened more frequently than letters to an “Education Research Project” (Sechrest and Belew 1983).

  3. The addresses were scattered throughout the urban area of Cologne (Germany).

  4. These stamps cannot be received on request. Rather we got hold of officially stamped envelopes by asking a colleague from a neighboring city (Bonn) to mail us unsealed envelopes a day before the experiment. We were able to reuse these envelopes for the experiment. The sender address of the misdirected letter came from the same city the official stamp came from (Bonn) so that letters looked consistent and real. The fact that the sender address and the stamp come from a different city than subjects’ place of residence was done purposely to avoid that subjects could carry letters in person to the sender’s address and to dilute any suspicion that the University of Cologne was involved.

  5. From the 249 subjects 29 % kept everything and the average given to others is 2.94 Euro. The distributions do not differ according to a Kolmogorov-Smirnov test as well as to a standard t-test.

  6. See Appendix for a table with descriptive statistics of the variables.

  7. In Cologne the letter was only delivered to subjects living in single households. In the Bern study 16 of all 75 participants lived in single households.

  8. Field settings will probably always differ in some aspect from in-lab experiments, which limits the expected correlations (see Camerer 2011).

  9. See also Blanco et al. (2011) who find inconsistencies of subjects’ behavior in different games.


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Correspondence to Axel Franzen.

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Franzen, A., Pointner, S. The external validity of giving in the dictator game. Exp Econ 16, 155–169 (2013).

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