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An experimental study of prosocial motivation among criminals


The fact that criminal behavior typically has negative consequences for others provides a compelling reason to think that criminals lack prosocial motivation. This paper reports the results from two dictator game experiments designed to study the prosocial motivation of criminals. In a lab experiment involving prisoners, we find a striking similarity in the prosocial behavior of criminals and non-criminals, both when they interact with criminals and when they interact with non-criminals. Similarly, in an Internet experiment on a large sample from the general population, we find no difference in the prosocial behavior of individuals with and without a criminal record. We argue that our findings provide evidence of criminals being as prosocially motivated as non-criminals in an important type of distributive situations.

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Fig. 1
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  1. There is no statistically significant difference in the average share given when the endowment is 500 NOK and 1000 NOK (Wald test: p=0.51). In the analysis we only report the shares given.

  2. A basic statistical unit is the smallest geographical unit used by Statistics Norway.

  3. The selection procedure was approved by the Norwegian Social Science Data Services (“Norsk samfunnsvitenskaplig datatjeneste”) and the Norwegian Public Register (“Norsk Folkeregister”).

  4. To compensate the benchmark group for the additional time and costs incurred by this group in order to come to the lab, the show-up fee for the benchmark group, 300 NOK, was higher than the show-up fee for the prisoners, 100 NOK. The participants were not informed about the other group’s show-up fee.

  5. The Wald-tests here and below use Huber-White standard errors that are corrected for repeated observations of individuals where appropriate.

  6. When the receiver is prisoner Mann-Whitney: p=0.658 and the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test of equality of distributions: p=0.108. When the receiver is from the benchmark group Mann-Whitney test: p=0.850 and the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test of equality of distributions: p=0.631. For individuals with repeat observations, we take the average of the share given before applying the Mann-Whitney tests. For the Kolmogorov-Smirnov tests, we look only at the case where the endowment is 1000 NOK. Here and below, we report the p-values for the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test statistic are calculated using a permutation test procedure with 10 000 permutations (since the standard distribution theory for the Kolmogorov-Smirnov statistic relies on continuously distributed outcomes).

  7. The Mann-Whitney test: p=0.612 and the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test of equality of distributions: p=0.516.

  8. Mann-Whitney test: p=0.508 and the Kolmogoro-Smirnov test of equality of distributions: p=0.073.

  9. Regressions with each of these dummies included separately show that the average share given by participants from these groups are not significantly different from the average share given by the other participants.


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We would like to thank Tore Ellingsen, James Konow, Michel Maréchal, Karl Ove Moene, Sendhil Mullainathan, Ulrik Haagen Nielsen, Agnar Sandmo, Jean-Robert Tyran and Erik Wengström for valuable comments and suggestions. We would also like to thank Harald Aasaune at Bjørgvin Prison and Leif Waage at the Norwegian Correctional Services for their cooperation, Magne Ludvigsen, Bjørn Ivar Grøttå, Morten Sæthre, and Kristian Øpstad for IT-support, and Henrik Birkeland, Øystein Dvergsdal, Trygve Eiken, Lars Engebretsen, Hans Petter Gramer, Cathrine Gravdal, Ole-Aleksander Greve, Line Halvorsen, Trond Halvorsen, Liv Eline Hetland, Jon Rasmussen, Karoline Salamonsen, Jonas Tungodden, and Fredrik Young-Halvorsen for research assistance. A special thank to Ulrik Haagen Nielsen for help with the Internet experiment. The project was financed by support from the Research Council of Norway, research grant 185831, and the Center for the Study of Mind in Nature, University of Oslo, and administered by The Choice Lab at the Norwegian School of Economics.

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Correspondence to Alexander W. Cappelen.

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Birkeland, S., Cappelen, A.W., Sørensen, E.Ø. et al. An experimental study of prosocial motivation among criminals. Exp Econ 17, 501–511 (2014).

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  • Prosocial motivation
  • Criminals

JEL Classification

  • C91
  • D63
  • K40