A Behavior-Personality Cycle Between Altruism and Honesty-Humility

by Khatiti Harper, Kenyon ’17

By Andrea Booher (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Altruism is the practice of unselfish concern for the welfare of others. This can manifest itself through volunteering or donating blood or money – really any act that benefits others but not the individual (in a concrete way).

Altruism is an interesting concept as it goes against behavioral economic and evolutionary ideas that say all of our actions are driven by self-interest and our desire for self-preservation. Despite this, altruistic behavior plays a large role in how our society functions. With this in mind, many researchers have found it important to understand the concept of altruism, and recently whether there are personality predictors of altruism.

The Dictator Game (DG) is a framework that exemplifies altruistic behavior. One participant, the dictator, is given an endowment and the task of allocating the endowment between themselves and another participant, the Recipient.

Many past studies using the DG have shown large variations in altruistic behavior between people. A few studies have investigated the link between personality and altruism, but these studies only looked at correlations with the Big Five traits, which is a widely accepted personality model that presents five personality traits: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to experience, Consciousness, and Agreeableness. These studies found varied results, and no one trait was strongly correlated with altruism. Agreeableness, which could logically be related with altruism, was an inconsistent predictor for the behavior. Another concern with these studies was general variation between designs and methodological errors.

The goal of a German study by Hilbig et al., (2015) was to avoid these errors to get a clearer picture of the relation that may exist between personality and altruistic behaviors. First, they measured both the Big Five and HEXACO, which is a personality model that builds on the Big Five personality traits with a sixth, Honesty-Humility (HH). HH is defined as “the tendency to be fair and genuine in dealing with others, in the sense of cooperating with others even when one might exploit them without suffering retaliation” (Ashton & Lee, 2007, p. 156). Another concern that the researchers had was that of participants wanting to appear to have socially desirable traits through false actions of altruism. To get a more accurate reading of altruism separate from this, they made the DG double blind. In the context of this study, this means that the dictator did not need to reveal to the experimenter how much they allocated, adding a layer of anonymity between dictator and researcher. Finally, they had the recipients judge the HH of their dictator, to determine whether there was a full circle effect between this trait and the behavior of altruism. All of these extra steps worked towards a goal (that seems to be achieved) of a more accurate and reliable study.

The study was designed in two parts. The first part collected data from the dictator, and the second from the recipients. At least one day before the lab study, the dictators took a pre-study measuring the HEXACO and Big Five traits (with the German HEXACO-PI-R and NEO-FFI scales). Once in the lab, they would be given an envelope with nothing on it but their participant number and 5.00 € (approx. $6.00) inside. They were told to pocket whatever amount they wanted and leave the rest to be given to a random and unknown recipient.

The second part took place a few weeks later where the recipients (a new group of participants) would receive a random allocation. Before physically receiving the allocations, they were asked to make predictions about how much they might receive. Once they got their envelopes, they were instructed to count the money and then rank how fair they thought the allocation was on a 5-point scale ranging from “unfair” to “fair”. The last step was an observer report form with the ten items meant to measure Honesty-Humility from the 60-item HEXACO-PI-R that the dictators took.

The assumption that HH would have a positive relationship with the allocation size was supported by this data. Agreeableness did not stand out as a strong predictor for allocation size. A positive correlation was found between the size of the allocation and the judgment of fairness. Generally, when the allocation was above 30% of the endowment, they were rated with the highest fairness option. The fairness ratings did seem to be affected by the expectations reported by the recipients. If the recipients had a high expectation and received a low allotment, they rated it as more unfair. The final main finding was that the recipients’ judgment of the dictators’ HH showed a positive relationship with the dictators’ self-reported HH.

Table 1
M (SD) 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.
1. HEX Honesty-Humility 3.30 (0.65)
2. HEX Extraversion 3.52 (0.53) .12
3. HEX Agreeableness 3.11 (0.50) .28 .06
4. NEO Extraversion 3.42 (0.45) .24 .73 -.01
5. NEO Agreeableness 3.63 (0.51) .44 .36 .57 .25
6. DG Expectation 1.36 (1.02) -.12 -.18 -.21 .01 -.13
7. Perceived Fairness of Allocation 3.64 (1.55) .28 -.05 .11 .10 .16 -.22
8. Judgment of Dictator’s HH 3.10 (0.73) .30 -.15 .06 .06 .20 -.22 .68

 Note. This table signifies correlations between the different variables. Correlations greater than or equal to .18 are significant. Adapted from (Hilbig et al., 2015)

 Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 10.17.47 AM

The results of this study lay out a cycle between altruistic behavior and the HH personality trait. The self reported HH predicted the allocation given. The allocation then had a positive relationship with the perceived fairness. The perceived fairness then affected the recipients’ judgment of the dictators’ HH, which in turn predicted the dictators’ actual HH. The hope is that the information found in this study will serve as a starting point for future studies investigating behavioral economics and personality psychology.


Hilbig, E. J., Thielmann, I., Hepp, J., Klein, A. S., Zettler, I. (2015). From personality to altruistic behavior (and back): Evidence from a double-blind dictator game. Journal of Research in Personality, 55, 46-50.

Booher, A. (2007). Image. Retrieved February 15, 2015, from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FEMA_-_33424_-_A_Red_Cross_volunteer_talks_to_the_sister_a_fire_victim_in_California.jpg

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