I Hurt Her So You Pay

You might hope that folks who tend more to feel guilty when they hurt others would then try to compensate those victims, at their personal expense, and thus would have an incentive to avoid hurting folks. Not so!  Yes guilty folks compensate victims, but not at their personal expense.

A psych study asked people to think of someone they felt guilty toward, or made them imagine feeling guilty toward someone (e.g., slacking off on a joint project, or being careless with something borrowed). Researchers then had these guilty folks divide up money between themselves, the victim, and a third party (e.g., a deserving charity or random person). Compared to controlled conditions, such people give more money to the victim, but at the expense of the third party, not themselves. When they consider such donation behavior in other people, it is not morally exemplary.


In a typical dictator game, one person decides how to divide a sum of money (or other resources) among oneself and another person without the other having any influence on the division of the resources. In our experiments, participants decided how to divide resources among themselves, the victim, and another person (the nonvictim), without the victim or the nonvictim having any influence on the division. … In all experiments we [found] that, compared with a control condition, participants in guilt conditions … offer more resources to the victim and fewer resources to other social partners without changing the amount of resources for themselves. In addition, Experiments 1– 4 systematically rule out alternative explanations of the effect and reveal conditions under which the effect is observed.

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  • Doug

    The welfare state succinctly explained!

    • Sean

      You’re right – this does sound vaguely similar to what socialists do! Those socialists sure are hypocrites.

      • Maybe one of you should spell out this reasoning; I don’t see it.

        The obvious parallel is when the banks recently caused a depression, and now their political representatives advocate that others suffer austerity. Maybe in our day’s Orwellian language calls finance capital socialist.

      • Sean

        I was being sarcastic. People use any study that describes behaviour vaguely similar to that of their political opponents as a shot against the other group, while having no way of showing that the behaviour described in the study is actually what causes their opponents’ actions.

        Also, of course socialists are hypocritical – everyone is hypocritical and socialists are people.

  • Sister Y

    A successful competitive entity needs to be good at externalizing as many costs as possible – even when this competitive entity is built with putatively anti-competitive impulses, like empathy.

    This is a BAD THING.

  • Philo

    The “dictator game” is unrealistic. Very seldom do I interact with another person in complete confidence that there will be no subsequent interaction. Thus the other person is never without influence on my behavior towards him: I know that if I now do something he dislikes he may retaliate later, while he is more likely to cooperate with me later if I act considerately towards him now.

    • fburnaby

      Undoubtedly the extreme case is a toy model. How often do you have a low likelihood of subsequent interaction? Is there any reason to expect this effect to show up only in the most extreme case?

      Furthermore, the fact that the dictator game is “unrealistic” doesn’t necessarily say anything about how interesting the result is. This still raises the question as to why people behave this way.

  • Philo

    The headline should have read: “I hurt her so you get a less generous award from me.”

  • regular reader

    You should add a like button to your blog posts to elicit less verbose and more emotional feedback. I like.

  • cournot

    Actually Philo, there is something equivalent. When people vote for expenses to be paid for by others’ taxes it’s not very far from the dictator game. This is especially true for the set of Americans who have no net tax obligation or whose taxes are low enough that any changes in upper bracket taxes are irrelevant. Ditto for support for tariffs, affirmative action, busing, etc. Even when the person voting is tangentially affected, the bulk of the benefits and harms are usually borne by others.

  • Allan Crossman

    “Researchers then had these guilty folks divide up money … such people give more money to the guilty person”

    Hmm, what?

  • Pingback: The guilty compensate their victims at the expense of others. | The Thinker()

  • k-dog

    How about ‘I hurt her but it really wasn’t my fault the devil mad me do it.’

    Since I can admit my involvement but not my responsibility you must pay, not me. If I paid there would be two victims not one and since everything I give you is gravy not giving you a full scoop doesn’t deprive you of anything because you did not have it to begin with.

    With an argument that complex one is never wrong.