There is a famous experiment called the Ultimatum Game where one player (the “proposer”) is given an amount of money, and asked to divide it amongst himself and the second player (the “responder”). If the responder rejects the offer, neither player gets anything. Thus, from a cold, rational standpoint–the responder “should” accept any offer made, even paltry amounts, because they’d end up a bit richer than they would have been otherwise. However, these experiments have consistently shown that when unfair offers are made (under 20% of the total pool of money), they are likely to be rejected by the responder.
Researchers have been puzzling over the results. Are humans hardwired for “fairness” over personal utility?
I’d like to propose a different alternative, based on my experience with social networks and social games: humans are social animals. Nobody wants to accept an offer that makes them look like society will be able to take advantage of them. Even in cases (such as this experiment) where the person is told that the cycle won’t be repeated (and therefore the offer/rejection will be totally independent), I suspect that the sociological wiring is too strong. In other words, the responder’s social status–and not financial reward alone–would be part of the “payoff” they are considering in accepting or rejecting an offer. This would mirror what we’ve come to expect within many social games.
It would be interesting to take a fresh look at the experiment. What would happen if you had two groups? The control group would be the traditional Ultimatum Game, with two humans playing with each other. The test group would be a human responder who plays against a computer making the offer; the responder would be told that regardless of whether they accept or reject, their decision will be kept secret. I suspect that their behavior will change a lot depending on whether they think human beings will know about their decision.
In general, this is part of a theme that I think is ripe to explore in social games: the idea of public consequences for ones actions.