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Economic Man in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Behavioral Experiments in Fifteen Small-Scale Societies

Listed author(s):
  • Joseph Henrich
  • Robert Boyd
  • Samuel Bowles
  • Colin Camerer
  • Ernst Fehr
  • Herbert Gintis
  • Richard McElreath
  • Michael Alvard
  • Abigail Barr
  • Jean Ensminger
  • Kim Hill
  • Francisco Gil-White
  • Michael Gurven
  • Frank Marlowe
  • John Q. Patton
  • Natalie Smith
  • David Tracer

Experimental behavioral scientists have found consistent deviations from the predictions of the canonical model of self-interest in over a hundred experiments from around the world. Prior research cannot determine whether this uniformity results from universal patterns of behavior, or from the limited cultural variation among the university students subject pools used in virtually all prior experimental work. To address the above questions, we undertook a cross-cultural study of behavior in Ultimatum, Public Goods, and Dictator Games in fifteen small-scale societies exhibiting a wide variety of economic and cultural conditions. We found, first, that the canonical selfishness-based model fails in all of the societies studied. Second, there is more behavioral variability than had been found in previous research. Third, group-level differences in economic organization and the structure of social interactions explain a substantial portion of the behavioral variation across societies: the higher the degree of market integration and the higher the payoffs to cooperation in everyday life, the greater the level of prosociality expressed in experimental games. Fourth, individual-level economic and demographic variables do not explain game behavior, either within or across groups. Fifth, in many cases experimental play appears to reflect the common interactional patterns of everyday life.

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Paper provided by Santa Fe Institute in its series Working Papers with number 01-11-063.

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Date of creation: Nov 2001
Handle: RePEc:wop:safiwp:01-11-063
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