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Fair and unfair punishers coexist in the Ultimatum Game


  • Pablo Branas-Garza

    (Business School, Middlesex University London)

  • Antonio M. Espin

    (GLOBE,Universidad de Granada
    Departamento de Teoría e Historia Económica, Universidad de Granada)

  • Benedikt Herrmann

    (Behavioural Economics Team, Institute for Health and Consumer Protection, Joint Research Centre, European Commission)


Fairness norms are crucial in understanding the emergence and enforcement of large-scale cooperation in human societies. The most widely applied framework in the study of human fairness is the Ultimatum Game (UG). In the UG, a proposer suggests how to split a sum of money with a responder. If the responder rejects the proposer’s offer, both players get nothing. Rejection of unfair offers is considered to be a form of punishment implemented by fair-minded individuals, who are willing to sacrifice their own resources in order to impose the fairness norm. However, an alternative interpretation is equally plausible: punishers might actually be using rejections in a competitive, spiteful fashion as a means to increase their relative standing. This hypothesis is in line with recent evidence demonstrating that “prosocial” and “antisocial” punishers coexist in other experimental games. Using two large-scale experiments, we explore the nature of UG punishers by analyzing their behavior in a Dictator Game. In both studies, we confirm the coexistence of two entirely different sub-populations: prosocial punishers, who behave fairly as dictators, and spiteful (antisocial) punishers, who are totally unfair. Such a result is fundamental for research on the foundations of punishment behavior employing the UG. We discuss how focusing only on the fairness-oriented part of human behavior might give rise to misleading conclusions regarding the evolution of cooperation and the behavioral underpinnings of stable social systems.

Suggested Citation

  • Pablo Branas-Garza & Antonio M. Espin & Benedikt Herrmann, 2014. "Fair and unfair punishers coexist in the Ultimatum Game," SEET Working Papers 2014-02, BELIS, Istanbul Bilgi University.
  • Handle: RePEc:beb:wpseet:201402

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Mitzkewitz, Michael & Nagel, Rosemarie, 1993. "Experimental Results on Ultimatum Games with Incomplete Information," International Journal of Game Theory, Springer;Game Theory Society, vol. 22(2), pages 171-198.
    2. Forsythe Robert & Horowitz Joel L. & Savin N. E. & Sefton Martin, 1994. "Fairness in Simple Bargaining Experiments," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 6(3), pages 347-369, May.
    3. Catherine Eckel & Philip Grossman, 2000. "Volunteers and Pseudo-Volunteers: The Effect of Recruitment Method in Dictator Experiments," Experimental Economics, Springer;Economic Science Association, vol. 3(2), pages 107-120, October.
    4. Filippos Exadaktylos & Antonio M. Espin & Pablo Branas-Garza, 2012. "Experimental Subjects are Not Different," Working Papers 12-11, Chapman University, Economic Science Institute.
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    Cited by:

    1. Ignacio Tamarit & Angel Sánchez, 2016. "Emotions and Strategic Behaviour: The Case of the Ultimatum Game," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 11(7), pages 1-12, July.
    2. Antonio M. Espin & Angel Sanchez & Benedikt Herrmann, 2017. "Economic preferences 2.0: Connecting competition, cooperation and inter-temporal preferences," Discussion Papers 2017-04, The Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics, School of Economics, University of Nottingham.
    3. Yanling Zhang & Feng Fu, 2018. "Strategy intervention for the evolution of fairness," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 13(5), pages 1-13, May.
    4. Brice Corgnet & Antonio M. Espin & Roberto Hernán-González, 2015. "The cognitive basis of social behavior : cognitive reflection overrides antisocial but not always prosocial motives," Post-Print hal-02311954, HAL.
    5. Brañas-Garza, Pablo & Espín, Antonio M. & Lenkei, Balint, 2015. "BMI is not related to altruism, fairness, trust or reciprocity: Experimental evidence from the field and the lab," MPRA Paper 68184, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    6. Elias L Khalil & Nick Feltovich, 2018. "Moral licensing, instrumental apology and insincerity aversion: Taking Immanuel Kant to the lab," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 13(11), pages 1-24, November.
    7. Jeannette Brosig-Koch & Thomas Riechmann & Joachim Weimann, 2017. "The dynamics of behavior in modified dictator games," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 12(4), pages 1-18, April.
    8. Brañas-Garza, Pablo & Caldentey, Pedro & Espín, Antonio M. & Garcia, Teresa & Hernández, Ana, 2020. "Exposure to economic inequality at the age of 8 enhances prosocial behaviour in adult life," MPRA Paper 100683, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    9. Shanshan Zhen & Rongjun Yu, 2016. "Tend to Compare and Tend to Be Fair: The Relationship between Social Comparison Sensitivity and Justice Sensitivity," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 11(5), pages 1-17, May.
    10. Pei-Pei Liu & Vasiliy Safin & Barry Yang & Christian C Luhmann, 2015. "Direct and Indirect Influence of Altruistic Behavior in a Social Network," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 10(10), pages 1-18, October.
    11. Espín, Antonio M. & Brañas-Garza, Pablo & Gamella, Juan & Herrmann, Benedikt & Martin, Jesus, 2019. "Bringing together “old” and “new” ways of solving social dilemmas? The case of Spanish Gitanos," MPRA Paper 95423, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    12. Antonio M. Espín & Dolores Moreno-Herrero & José Sánchez-Campillo & José A. Rodríguez Martín, 2018. "Do Envy and Compassion Pave the Way to Unhappiness? Social Preferences and Life Satisfaction in a Spanish City," Journal of Happiness Studies, Springer, vol. 19(2), pages 443-469, February.
    13. Jeff Galak & Rosalind M Chow, 2019. "Compensate a little, but punish a lot: Asymmetric routes to restoring justice," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 14(1), pages 1-27, January.
    14. Valerio Capraro & Brice Corgnet & Antonio M. Espin & Roberto Hernan-Gonzalez, 2016. "Deliberation favors social efficiency by helping people disregard their relative shares: Evidence from US and India," Discussion Papers 2016-06, The Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics, School of Economics, University of Nottingham.
    15. Paul Rauwolf & Joanna J. Bryson, 2018. "Expectations of Fairness and Trust Co-Evolve in Environments of Partial Information," Dynamic Games and Applications, Springer, vol. 8(4), pages 891-917, December.

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