The Power of Asking: How Communication Affects Selfishness, Empathy, and Altruism
NBER Working Paper No. 16373
To understand the “pure” incentives of altruism, economic laboratory research on humans almost always forbids communication between subjects. In reality, however, altruism usually requires interaction between givers and receivers, which clearly must influence choices. Charities, for example, speak of the “power of asking.” Indeed, evolutionary theories of altruism are built on human sociality. We experimentally examine communication in which one subject allocates $10 between herself and a receiver, and systematically altered who in the pair could speak. We found that any time the recipient spoke, giving increased – asking is powerful. But when only allocators could speak, choices were significantly more selfish than any other condition. When empathy was heightened by putting allocators “in the receivers shoes,” altruism appeared as if recipients had been able to ask, even when they were silent. We conclude that communication dramatically influences altruistic behavior, and appears to largely work by heightening empathy.