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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Jan 2;110(1):216-21. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1210960110. Epub 2012 Dec 17.

Prosocial preferences do not explain human cooperation in public-goods games.

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Nuffield College, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 1NF, United Kingdom.


It has become an accepted paradigm that humans have "prosocial preferences" that lead to higher levels of cooperation than those that would maximize their personal financial gain. However, the existence of prosocial preferences has been inferred post hoc from the results of economic games, rather than with direct experimental tests. Here, we test how behavior in a public-goods game is influenced by knowledge of the consequences of actions for other players. We found that (i) individuals cooperate at similar levels, even when they are not informed that their behavior benefits others; (ii) an increased awareness of how cooperation benefits others leads to a reduction, rather than an increase, in the level of cooperation; and (iii) cooperation can be either lower or higher than expected, depending on experimental design. Overall, these results contradict the suggested role of the prosocial preferences hypothesis and show how the complexity of human behavior can lead to misleading conclusions from controlled laboratory experiments.

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