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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2018 Dec 17. doi: 10.1037/xge0000531. [Epub ahead of print]

Psychological constraints on aggressive predation in economic contests.

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Department of Social and Organizational Psychology, Leiden University.
Department of Social and Developmental Psychology, Sapienza University Rome.


When humans compete, they invest energy and effort to injure others and to protect against injury and exploitation. The psychology behind exploiting others and protecting against exploitation is still poorly understood and is addressed here in an incentivized economic contest game in which individuals invested in predatory attack and prey defense. Consistent with standard economic theory on production and predation, we find that individuals compete less intensely when they attack rather than defend and that attacks disproportionally often fail. We find, furthermore, 2 psychological mechanisms that restrain attack more than defense. First, individuals with stronger concern for others' welfare (Experiment 1a) and with stronger empathy (Experiment 1b) less frequently attack and when they attack, they do so less forcefully. Second, shorter decision times (Experiment 2a and Experiment 2b), along with cognitive taxation (Experiment 2b) associate with more forceful, but not with more frequent attack. Finally, investments in defense were neither predicted by other-concern and empathy, nor by decision time and cognitive taxation. Thus, individuals with stronger prosocial preferences and more deliberated decisions spent less energy on injuring others, and less often defeated their antagonists but ended-up personally wealthier. The waste of conflict can be reduced by strengthening prosocial preferences and cognitive resources available for deliberate decision-making. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved).


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