Altruism: Is It A Part of Personality?

by Angela Lee, Kenyon ’15

Altruism is a curious concept. Every day, people run marathons for charity, pledge money for non-profit organizations, help a stranger load groceries into a car. We choose to do these things and act this way even though, as far as we can tell, they are of no direct benefit to us. But here is where things become muddled: Can people truly be altruistic, or do we behave in an altruistic way when the actions are not, in fact, altruistic? Some people believe that there is no such thing as altruism and that those who perform altruistic deeds are, in fact, benefiting, even if indirectly. Others believe that acts of kindness can be exactly what they seem to be: acts of kindness.

Hilbig and colleagues address this question from the perspective of behavioral economics and personality research. In their study, the researchers utilize an adapted version of the paradigm, “the Dictator Game.” In the commonly known version, and individual, the “dictator,” is given a sum of money. Then, the dictator is asked to split this money between himself and the recipient. There is widespread evidence that the dictator typically gives about 20-30% of the money to the recipient. This study takes this paradigm and manipulates it to observe the potential links between altruism and basic personality traits.

This study took a two-pronged approach to the data; it gathered information from the 96 dictators, but also gathered information from the 95 participants who acted as the recipients. The dictators were asked to complete a pre-study at least 24 hours prior to the session at the lab. Because this study used both the five-factor personality test as well as the HEXACO model in order to overcome inconsistencies that had been found in previous research, the “pre-study,” or the self-report, was a compilation of different personality tests. In the lab session that followed this, the dictator completed an adapted, double-blind version of the Dictator Game. This means that in the game, the dictator remained anonymous to the recipient, and vice versa. This was done in an attempt to eliminate the role that social desirability might play in the amount of money the dictator allocated to the recipient.

The recipients were, in turn, asked to predict the amount of money they would receive from the dictator. Then, they were given the money that the dictator had allotted to them, and asked to judge whether this amount was “fair” or “unfair.” Finally, the recipients were provided with ten items that measured the HEXACO trait, Honesty-Humility, which is a factor that shows a person has “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). With these ten items, the recipients were asked to predict the personality of the dictator who had allotted the money.

The researchers were hoping to find three things. First, that the HH predicts the dictators’ allocations. Second, that these allocations would predict the recipients’ perceptions of the dictators’ fairness. Thirdly, that these fairness perceptions would correlate with the recipients’ predictions of the dictators’ levels of HH. And finally, that the recipients’ predicted levels of HH would somehow correlate with the dictators’ true HH scores, which were gathered from the self-report in the pre-lab.

Results showed that the dictators’ self-reports did correlate with their allocations in this study, and that these allocations were strongly correlated to the fairness rated by the recipients. 84% of the allocations judged as “fair” were allocations larger than 30% of the given sum, and it was also shown that these judgments also worked the other way; the judgments were negatively correlated to the expectation of the recipient. This can potentially mean that the recipients who expected to receive more probably thought that the low allocations were more unfair in comparison to those recipients who expected to receive less. This showed the researchers that there were two factors in play here: both the dictators’ allocations themselves as well as the recipients’ expectations of the allocations. A final note: the judgments recipients made of the dictators’ HH after the receiving of the allocation had a strong correlation to the recipients’ prior judgments of “fairness” as well as, in turn, the dictators’ self-reports.

These findings play a significant role in furthering work in the field of personality research in relation to behavioral economics in a number of ways. The results corroborate past work and have, because of this new correlation to the HH factor, extends previous findings. It has shown that, although altruism had previously been shown as inconsistently related to a number of different factors, it, as studied from a paradigm such as the Dictator Game, can actually be predicted by traits inside certain models of personality structure. It also can work as an argument for the existence of altruism as an individual trait, even in its role as an inherited, evolutionarily significant characteristic.


Ashton, M. C., & Lee, K. (2007). Empirical, theoretical, and practical advantages of the HEXACO model of personality structure. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 150-166.

Hilbig, B. E., Thielmann, I., Hepp, J., Klein, S. A., & 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.

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