How Do You Predict Altruism?

By Emily Levi D’Ancona, Kenyon ’16

We all have—or, at least, hope to have—one of those friends whom we describe as “willing to do anything for her best friends.” You might call this friend generous, kind, or even altruistic. What are the traits that determine whether or not someone is willing to put others before themselves? What aspects of personality cause people to show unconditional kindness to others? As it turns out, psychologists have been puzzling over this one for a while. But a recent study by Hilbig, Thielmann, Hepp, Klein, and Zettler (2015) suggests that people who have the trait Honesty-Humility (HH) are most likely to be altruistic.

Altruism is a tricky tendency to measure, since it is a socially desirable trait. People are likely to behave in an altruistic manner if they are being observed because, well, it makes them look good! One common way that altruism has been measured in the past is through The Dictator Game, in which one individual, called the dictator, is given an endowment and asked to split it between himself and one other unknown person. The game allows psychologists to measure altruism, or unconditional kindness: if the dictator is altruistic, he will give away some of the money even though he doesn’t have to. If he is not altruistic, he will pocket all of the money. Past studies have measured the correlation between the Big Five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and altruistic behavior. Some researchers thought that people high in agreeableness might be more altruistic, but it seems like none of the Big Five can consistently predict altruistic behavior.

Well, maybe not the Big Five, but what if there was a sixth trait added? The HEXACO model of personality includes a sixth trait called Honesty-Humility (HH), defined as “the tendency to be fair and genuine in dealing with others.” Several studies have linked HH to altruism in the Dictator Game. The problem is that most studies that show this trend rely on hypothetical situations–the dictator is asked what he would do, rather than actually doing it. But people are likely to be altruistic in hypothetical situations—in a made-up situation, there are made-up rewards, so the dictator doesn’t really lose anything if he decides to share the money with a stranger.

So what we need is more evidence to show that HH is related to altruism when there is a real incentive for the dictator to act in non-altruistic ways—real money instead of hypothetical money. We also need anonymity so that the dictator doesn’t share his wealth just because people are watching.

Hilbig et al. did just this. To solve the dilemma, they conducted an experiment that changes the Dictator Game to make it “double blind,” meaning that the dictator does not reveal his decision to the experimenter: the dictator has complete anonymity, both from the recipients of the money and from the person monitoring the experiment. In addition, the dictator is given real money to split between himself and an anonymous participant—5 Euros, to be exact—so that he has a real motivation to act selfishly (less altruism, more money in his own pocket!)

So, let the Dictator Games begin! 96 participants chosen to play the part of the dictator (roughly half male and half female, ages 18-33) first took an online survey to measure their levels of Honesty-Humility. Then, the dictators completed the double-blind Dictator Game: they were given 5 and asked to divide the money between themselves and an unknown stranger who they would never meet. Based on the dictators’ self-reports compared to their tendencies to share their money, the study shows that HH predicts altruism.

Several weeks later, 96 recipients (roughly half male and half female, ages 18-33) were informed of the whole procedure, and then asked to predict how much money they were allocated. Then, they received an envelope, counted the money, and rated the personality of the dictator from whom they received the money. As you might guess, recipients judged their dictators based on the amount of money they were given, with 84% of “fair” judgments coming from participants who received 30% or more of the dictator’s money. Also not surprisingly, if recipients expected to receive more money than they actually received, they were more likely to rate the dictator as. The recipients’ judgments of HH in the dictator were also related to the dictators’ self-reported HH scores, with a correlation of .30.

Hilbig et al., then, show that people with the trait HH are more likely to give money to others in the Dictator Game, and therefore more altruistic. Also, the perceived fairness of the dictator’s actions depends both on the amount of money given to the recipient and the recipient’s prior expectations of how much money he would receive. This perceived fairness affects recipients’ judgments of how much Honesty-Humility the dictator possesses, and these HH scores determined by recipients reflect the self-reported (and presumably true) HH scores of the dictators. According to the study, then people commonly associate HH as a trait that encourages altruism—recipients assumed that dictators who gave lots of money were also high in Honesty -Humility.

Still, this study has its flaws. The amount given to the dictator to split between himself and the recipient was small—only 5 Euros. For most people, it’s not a huge deal to give away 2 or 3 Euros. But what if it had been a larger sum—say, 1000 Euros? Would altruism levels go down? Would dictators who gave away 30% of their 5 Euros be willing to give away a few hundred Euros, as well? Maybe the participants saw 5 Euros as play money and were more likely to share it because of this.

Similarly, the study didn’t seem to take into account the different socioeconomic backgrounds of the dictators. A rich participant might give away a large portion of his 5 Euros—maybe even all of it—with ease, while a participant who could really use some money for lunch might be more likely to keep it all. But this doesn’t mean that the second dictator is less altruistic, or lower in HH; he simply has less to give!

Regardless, assuming that the participants were diverse, it seems like Hilbig et al. have finally found a trait to predict altruistic behavior. Looks like it truly does pay to have a friend high in Honesty-Humility—hanging around with that guy who “would do anything” for friends, you might find yourself a few Euros richer!


Hilbig, B.E., Thielmann, I., Hepp, J., Klein, S.A., and Zettler, I. (2015). From personality to altruistic behavior (and back): Evidence from a double-blind dictator game. Journal of Personality Research 55, 46-50. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2014.12.004

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s