Charitable giving among females and males: an empirical test of the competitive altruism hypothesis


We conduct a real-effort task experiment where subjects’ performance translates into a donation to a charity. In a within-subjects design we vary the visibility of the donation (no/private/public feedback). Confirming previous studies, we find that subjects’ performance increases, that is, they donate more to charity, when their relative performance is made public. In line with the competitive altruism hypothesis, a biology-based explanation for status-seeking behavior, especially male subjects increase performance in the public setting.

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  1. 1.

    The Giving Pledge is another high-profile example for generosity in combination with publicity. Initiated by U.S. billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates it addresses extremely wealthy individuals to commit to giving part of their wealth to philanthropic causes. The pledge is a moral commitment, not a legal contract. The list of individuals who agreed to pledge is available online at the web site of the campaign ( There is also case evidence that a $3 million donation to the New York City Children’s Zoo was revoked by the donors after they felt that their gift was not satisfactorily recognized (Dunlap 1997).

  2. 2.

    Hence, the competitive altruism hypothesis should not be regarded as a substitute for or a contradiction of social-image or social status models in order to explain pro-social behavior.

  3. 3.

    They show that males outperform females in solving mazes if groups are mixed under a tournament setting, in contrast to a unisex group composition or a piece rate scheme. Groups always consisted of 6 subjects and the tournament was winner-takes-all. Subjects were only informed about their own competition outcome (winner or not), that is, feedback was given in private. Such a gender gap in performance may not only be found when own payoffs are determined in a private feedback competition (see also Günther et al. 2010 and Booth and Nolen 2012 for similar set-ups/results), but also in the context of competition for a pro-social signal. Note that Gneezy and Rustichini (2004) also find a gender gap in performance under competition (but not individually) when the outcome is public.

  4. 4.

    Alternative design options exist. The mating mind-set could be manipulated, an approach adopted by Van Vugt and Iredale (2013), as the presence/absence of potential partners may increase/decrease competitive altruism (particularly by males). However, this is not a required condition as competitive altruism is theoretically not limited to mating contexts but may also apply to other domains of (interaction) partner selection, see Sect. 2. Another option would be to incorporate signals that mean a real loss of resources (instead of our real-effort task). However, monetary incentives would introduce a motivational dimension (material payoffs) that might confound the effect of competitive altruism, see Ariely et al. (2009). Hence, we decided to keep the payment to subjects constant in order to focus on a purely pro-social activity, even though this means that the cost of the signal is ‘only’ effort and does not contain a monetary component.

  5. 5.

    This question was hypothetical. Subjects were asked to imagine they had 10 Euro available for a donation.

  6. 6.

    Ideally, the order of the four treatments would have been fully randomized over the four periods. However, controlling perfectly for order effects required running 24 possible variations. Due to practical aspects this was not realizable and we decided to take the test for the effect of a pro-social consequence out of the order variation and use a rotation only for the treatments that varied the visibility of a subject’s performance.

  7. 7.

    Note that our application of competitive altruism to charitable giving is not intended as a substitute to social-image models (see, for instance, Akerlof 1980; Glazer and Konrad 1996; Benabou and Tirole 2006; Andreoni and Bernheim 2009; Ellingsen and Johanesson 2009) or social status models (see, e.g., Frank 1985; Ball et al. 2001). Instead, it provides a process model that is in support of the general message of social-image/status concerns, and adds a unique own prediction about gender differences.

  8. 8.

    Eckel and Grossman (1998) conduct a double-anonymous dictator experiment and find that women, on average, donate twice as much as men. Rigdon et al. (2009) conduct a double-blind dictator game with and without a weak social cue (three dots in a watching-eyes configuration). Again, female subjects are significantly more generous in the condition without the cue. The significant increase in giving ‘under observation’ is entirely driven by the behavior of male subjects. Bolton and Katok (1995) use a less anonymous dictator game design and find no difference between male and female giving. Andreoni and Vesterlund (2001) report evidence in favor of men/women being more altruistic in double-blind dictator games depending on whether the price of giving is low/high. Note that a recent meta-analysis on sex differences in cooperation (Balliet et al. 2011) did not find an overall gender effect. Balliet et al. (2011) suggest that gender differences in cooperation are highly context-specific.

  9. 9.

    For instance, in previous studies that found gender differences in competition (e.g., Gneezy et al. 2003; Niederle and Vesterlund 2007; Günther et al. 2010; Booth and Nolen 2012) group size was relatively small (4–6) in comparison to our experiment (30) and the tournament was winner-takes-all with feedback about having won or not, while in ours donations are made according to performance and a relative ranking is given.

  10. 10.

    How do individuals behave, if performance in a competition affects neither own nor others’ payoffs, that is, what happens if people compete under private/public feedback but performance in the task is not linked to any output? This likely depends on how the task used in the competition is perceived by subjects. Results from Ariely et al. (2008)—from tasks performed individually—indicate that people perform less when tasks are meaningless. control treatments of competition without any private or pro-social consequences, although this may be interpreted as a drawback. Since we focus on charitable giving, our experimental design does not involve control treatments of competition without any private or pro-social consequences. It might be interesting for future research to orthogonally manipulate the competition domain (no vs. private vs. pro-social interests) and visibility (no vs. private vs. public feedback) in order to integrate diverging findings on males’ and females’ competitiveness.


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We would like to thank Timo Stich for inspiring discussions, and the audiences of the brown bag seminars at the Max Planck Institute of Economics (Strategic Interaction Group) and the CEREB for their feedback. Hannes Koppel, Pat Barclay, Gerhard Riener and Christina Günther made helpful comments on earlier drafts. Jochen Bick, Dvin Galstian Pour, and Markus Fricke provided excellent research assistance.

Author information

Correspondence to Tobias Regner.



Experimental instructions

Welcome and thank you for participating in this experiment. In this experiment you can earn a certain amount of money, which depends on your and the other participants’ decision. Hence, it is important that you read the following instructions carefully.

Please note that these instructions are only meant for you and that you are not allowed to exchange any information with the other participants. Similarly, during the entire experiment it is not allowed to talk to other participants. If you have any questions or concerns, please raise your hand. We will answer your questions individually. Please do not ask your question(s) aloud. It is very important that you follow these rules; otherwise we have to stop the entire experiment. Please also turn off your mobile phone now.


The experiment lasts about 60 min and consists of four different sections. In the following we explain to you what you have to do in the different sections.

During this experiment, you can earn money for a charity organization. The choices are Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Caritas, Doctors without Borders, Unicef. You will also receive a fixed amount of money for your participation in the experiment. How much you give to charity depends on your performance during the experiment. Your earnings will be displayed in ECU (experimental currency units). Your ECU will be exchanged into Euro according to the following exchange rate: 1 \(\text{ ECU} = 0.02\) Euro. All earned ECU will be exchanged into Euro and disbursed in cash at the end of today’s session. The amount given to charity will be deposited online immediately after the experiment. Additionally you will receive your payoff in cash. You will receive 2.5 Euro for your arrival. Additionally you will receive the fixed amount of 4 Euro for your participation in the experiment.

After completing a short questionnaire the experiment is finished and you receive your payoff.

Here is an overview of the course of the experiment:

  1. 1.

    Read the instructions

  2. 2.

    Test section

  3. 3.

    Sections A, B, C, D

  4. 4.


  5. 5.

    Payoff and end of the experiment

Details of the experiment

In this experiment you can earn money for a charity organization. You already told us, which charity organization you prefer. Your earnings will be donated to the charity of your choice.

You donate to the charity by clicking two keys on the keyboard in turn, as fast as you can, during a specific amount of time. The first 200 clicks, will result in a donation of 1 ECU per couple of clicks. For the next 200 clicks, the donation will be 0,5 ECU per couple of clicks. The 200 clicks after that, will result in a donation of 0,25 ECU per couple of clicks. Therefore, the more clicks, the more generous the donation. The following table shows you, how much you donate, depending on the amount of keystrokes (or short: clicks) that you have already done.

Therefore, for example, if you have done 300 clicks, the result is a donation of 250 ECU. If you managed to do 700 clicks, the donation will be 362,5 ECU. If you managed to do 1000 clicks, the donation will be 387,5 ECU.


In order to familiarize yourself with clicking, you will be given the chance to test it (Section T). This section lasts 30 s. You cannot donate during this test section. After that, there will be four sections, which will each last 5 min. Between each section, you will receive a different task. These tasks do not demand any physical activity and we will make sure you have enough time to rest before you continue. Your answers in this task will not be stored and evaluated. They are also not relevant for your payoff. So the purpose of the tasks between the sections is solely time filling during the rest period.

The four sections differ from each other as follows:

  • Section A There is no chance to donate. At the end of the experiment,...

    • the number of your clicks will not result in a donation;

    • you will not be informed about the number of your clicks;

    • you will be informed, what your ranking in comparison to the other participants in this section is (so your rank with respect to the number of clicks in comparison to the other participants); and

    • the other participants will not be informed about the number of your clicks.

  • Section B In this section there will be a donation at the end of the experiment. At the end of the experiment,...

    • the number of clicks will be turned into a donation (the more clicks, the more generous the donation);

    • you will not be informed about the number of your clicks;

    • you will not be informed, what your ranking in comparison to the other participants in this section is; and

    • the other participants will not be informed about the number of your clicks.

  • Section C In this section there will be a donation at the end of the experiment. At the end of the experiment,...

    • the number of clicks will be turned into a donation (the more clicks, the more generous the donation);

    • you will be informed about the number of your clicks;

    • you will be informed what your ranking in comparison to the other participants in this section is; and

    • the other participants will not be informed about the number of your clicks.

  • Section D In this section there will be a donation. At the end of the experiment,...

    • the number of clicks will be turned into a donation (the more clicks, the more generous the donation);

    • you will be informed about the number of your clicks;

    • you will be informed about what your ranking in comparison to the other participants in this section is; and

    • The other participants of the experiment will additionally be informed about your performance in this section. For this, we will call each participant individually. You will then stand up, name the charity organization of your choice, the number of your clicks and your ranking.

Important: The order of the sections is random. Therefore, you may first perform section C and then section B. Of course, you will be informed about which section you perform at the time, at the beginning and during the section.

Your earnings from the experiment

Your earnings from the experiment consist of the fixed amount for your participation in the experiment and the basic payment for your arrival (2.5 Euro). This amount will be paid in cash, after completing the questionnaire at the end of the experiment. Through your performance in the experiment you additionally donate an amount to a charitable organization. For this, we randomly choose one of the sections B, C or D. The ECU earned by you will be exchanged into Euro. After the experiment the received amounts will be donated online under the supervision of two participants from the experiment.

Control questions:

Does your own payoff depend on the amount of clicks in this experiment?

  • Yes

  • No

  • This is not clear yet

Does your donation depend on the amount of clicks in this experiment?

  • Yes

  • No

  • This is not clear yet

There are four sections in this experiment (A,B,C,D). Which section will be played third?

  • A

  • B

  • C

  • D

  • It is not possible to know that yet, because the order is random.

In how many sections can you make a donation

  • 1

  • 2

  • 3

  • 4

  • 5

From which section(s) will your performance be made public at the end of the experiment? (standing up individually and naming the number of clicks and ranking)?

  • Section A

  • Section B

  • Section C

  • Section D

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Böhm, R., Regner, T. Charitable giving among females and males: an empirical test of the competitive altruism hypothesis. J Bioecon 15, 251–267 (2013) doi:10.1007/s10818-013-9152-x

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  • Social preferences
  • Other-regarding behavior
  • Charitable giving
  • Social-image concerns
  • Competitive altruism
  • Experiments
  • Social status

JEL Classification

  • C91
  • D03
  • J16