Using emotional insight
for personal development and professional success

The Ultimatum Experiment

I’ve recently become interested in a psychological experiment called the Ultimatum Experiment.  It's simple enough to perform:  Take two people. Give one person £100, and ask him to give a proportion of that money to the second person.  If the second person rejects the offered money, neither player gets anything.  It’s made clear that the experiment will only happen once, so there’s no chance of the players doing a ‘deal’ over how they divide up the money – the power for dividing the money is all in the hands of the person with the money, but the person being given a share has the ultimate power as to whether either of them get the money.

As you may expect, if the second player receives around £30 or less he will generally reject the offer of the money.  This makes no logical sense as the second player is in the situation of either getting something (£30 if he agrees) or nothing.  But it seems people want to 'punish' the first player for their unfairness more than they want to benefit from what they see as an unfair offer.

You can find more about the Ultimatum Experiment thanks to this Wikipedia article.

There is some disagreement about the underlying reasons for why people reject the money they are offered if they see it as ‘unfair’.  Some people argue that it’s purely out of anger, that they are seeking to ‘punish’ the person with the money for being unfair.  Others say that it’s to do with a social contract – we refuse people who are unfair to us as a way of teaching them a lesson so that they will be more likely to be fair to us in future.

A further investigation into the underlying reasons behind it can be read here, as it was featured in the New York Times ‘Year in ideas’ article.

This study – entertainingly conducted on drunk participants – suggested that the motivation is more likely to be down to anger than strategic thinking (because drunk people are very poor at thinking strategically or about the long term consequences of their actions).  However, I tend to disagree with this conclusion – I think there's something a little more complex going on, and that this process shines some interesting lights on some of the political issues we deal with all the time.  And share my ponderings in my next post…

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