Contextual Effects in the Dictator Game

Vjosa Poshka

Advisor: James C Thompson, PhD, Department of Psychology

Committee Members: Craig McDonald, Thalia Goldstein

David J. King Hall, 2027
November 17, 2022, 09:30 AM to 11:30 AM


Humans are generous toward others, including strangers. Social signaling theory argues that people are motivated by a desire to appear generous rather than actually be generous. One paradigm used to investigate this theory is the dictator game, in which the dictator decides how to split an endowment (e.g., money) between themselves and another player. In three experiments, we explored how the context of the dictator game design influences generosity. First, we manipulated the moral source and amount of money in a repeated design. Money has the same material value regardless of whether it was earned, found, or stolen. However, we also consider its moral source e.g., whether it is clean or dirty. People gave away clean and dirty money similarly. Endowment amount had a significant impact on money given away. In a one-shot game follow-up, we found that context matters, and  people gave away more dirty money than clean money. We then considered the endowment’s moral source and the threat of gossip. People tend to be more generous when their behavior affects their reputation or when others may gossip about them. While people gave away more dirty money than clean money, the threat of gossip did not produce differences in generosity. Finally, we focused on moral source and recipient expectations. Generosity may be driven by a desire not to violate others’ expectations. People gave away money similarly regardless of what the recipient expected of them, but differently depending on the moral source: those endowed with dirty (rather than clean) money were more generous.