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“Economic man” in cross-cultural perspective: Behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies

  • Joseph Henrich (a1), Robert Boyd (a2), Samuel Bowles (a3), Colin Camerer (a4), Ernst Fehr (a5), Herbert Gintis (a6), Richard McElreath (a7), Michael Alvard (a8), Abigail Barr (a9), Jean Ensminger (a4), Natalie Smith Henrich (a10), Kim Hill (a11), Francisco Gil-White (a12), Michael Gurven (a13), Frank W. Marlowe (a14), John Q. Patton (a15) and David Tracer (a16)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 22 December 2005

Researchers from across the social sciences have found consistent deviations from the predictions of the canonical model of self-interest in hundreds of experiments from around the world. This research, however, cannot determine whether the uniformity results from universal patterns of human behavior or from the limited cultural variation available among the university students used in virtually all prior experimental work. To address this, we undertook a cross-cultural study of behavior in ultimatum, public goods, and dictator games in a range of small-scale societies exhibiting a wide variety of economic and cultural conditions. We found, first, that the canonical model – based on self-interest – fails in all of the societies studied. Second, our data reveal substantially more behavioral variability across social groups than has been found in previous research. Third, group-level differences in economic organization and the structure of social interactions explain a substantial portion of the behavioral variation across societies: the higher the degree of market integration and the higher the payoffs to cooperation in everyday life, the greater the level of prosociality expressed in experimental games. Fourth, the available individual-level economic and demographic variables do not consistently explain game behavior, either within or across groups. Fifth, in many cases experimental play appears to reflect the common interactional patterns of everyday life.

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Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • ISSN: 0140-525X
  • EISSN: 1469-1825
  • URL: /core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences
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