Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: The social voice of conscience

In Brief

The social voice of conscience

"Conscience is the still, small voice that tells you someone may be watching," according to a cynical aphorism. A series of psychological experiments in various cultures suggests that, properly interpreted, this aphorism states a less cynical truth. Altruism or willingness to share is not just a charitable impulse. It is associated with willingness to pay a price to penalize others for not sharing.

More than 1,700 people in 15 cultures from Africa, South America, New Guinea, the South Pacific, and the American Midwest played three simple experimental "games" called the ultimatum game, the dictator game, and the third-party punishment game.

In the dictator game — hardly a game at all — there are two players. Player A is given some money and can offer as much as he or she wants to player B. A purely selfish player A would offer nothing. This is a pure test of willingness to share, or, as the researchers call it, altruism.

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