Please don’t say you’re sorry

Two people in separate rooms: $10 to divide between them. One person – the lucky one – is the sender, who gets to choose how the $10 should be divided up. The other person, the receiver, has no choice but to accept.

What happens? Well usually the sender gives at least something away – which shows that we’re not an entirely selfish species. This is nice to know, but a new paper from James Adreoni (University of California) and Justin Rao (Yahoo Research Labs – [question: what could Yahoo be planning to do with this sort of study? The mind boggles]) looks at what happens when communication between the sender and receiver is allowed or restricted in different ways.

With no communication, only 15% was given away. I thought this was a bit on the low side, but perhaps there were quite a few economists taking part in the study. Unsurprisingly, allowing a receiver to send a plea for money increased the amount given away to at least 24%, showing that we’re not immune to appeals from our fellow humans.  When both the receiver and sender could send messages to each other, 30% was donated, highlighting the effect of social interactions on our decisions.

The most interesting result of all, though, was when only the sender was allowed to send a message. In this case, senders actually sent less than the case when no communication was allowed – only 6% of the money was given to the receiver, along with a brief note containing a hollow apology (often simply reading “I’m sorry”).

Why does this happen? One explanation is that the ability to send a message of apology makes the sender feel less guilty about keeping so much of the money.

Which just goes to show, you shouldn’t make it easy for other people to say sorry – it will probably only discourage them from doing the right thing in the first place.

The full paper is here:

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One Response to Please don’t say you’re sorry

  1. Pingback: Sorry, I’m on holiday. | Five Minute Economist's Blog

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