SPI Working Paper Series

WP #: 017

Date: Dec 2014

Other Sources



On the Interpretation of Giving in Dictator Games

     This paper was published in Journal of Political Economy in 2007

    John List

    University of Chicago, NBER

The dictator game represents a workhorse within experimental economics, frequently used to test theory and to provide insights into the prevalence of social preferences. This study explores more closely the dictator game and the literature’s preferred interpretation of its meaning by collecting data from nearly 200 dictators across treatments that varied the action set and the origin of endowment. The action set variation includes choices in which the dictator can "take" money from the other player. Empirical results question the received interpretation of dictator game giving: many fewer agents are willing to transfer money when the action set includes taking. Yet, a result that holds regardless of action set composition is that agents do not ubiquitously choose the most selfish outcome. The results have implications for theoretical models of social preferences, highlight that "institutions" matter a great deal, and point to useful avenues for future research using simple dictator games and relevant manipulations.