FSD3588 Cognitive and Affective Empathy in the Dictator Game 2018-2019

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  • Lappalainen, Olli (University of Turku)
  • Herne, Kaisa (Tampere University)
  • Hietanen, Jari (Tampere University)
  • Palosaari, Esa (Tampere University)


behavioural economics, decision making, empathy, game theory, politics, roles, social behaviour, trust


The experiment (2018-2019) on cognitive and affective empathy in the dictator game investigated the effects of prosociality, selfishness, and empathy on decision making. The research was carried out by the PCRC Decision Laboratory (PCRClab) at the University of Turku. The study was comprised of three parts. In the first part, data was collected with a questionnaire that measured participants' empathy. In the second part, participants took part in a round of the dictator game in an experimental setting at the PCRClab. Following their participation in the experiment, the participants completed a second questionnaire. The data were collected as a part of the Academy of Finland's Participation in Long-Term Decision-Making (PALO) project (project number 32662).

The participants completed the first questionnaire one to two weeks before the dictator game experiment. The questionnaire consisted of two measurement tools, Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis 1980) and Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy (QCAE; Reniers et al. 2011) which were used to provide a multi-dimensional assessment of the participants' empathy. The IRI subscales measure perspective taking, fantasy, empathic concern, and personal distress. The QCAE measures cognitive and affective empathy. The cognitive empathy subscales measure perspective taking and online simulation, and the affective empathy subscales measure emotional contagion, peripheral responsivity, and proximal responsivity. Participants completed the second questionnaire on the following day after the dictator game experiment. The questionnaire measured the participants' alignment on a left-right political spectrum, interest in societal issues, and trust in institutions (e.g. the president, the parliament, politicians, the judicial system, and the police).

The following sections on the dictator game experiment contain information about the progression of the game, experimental conditions, participants' roles during the experiment (decision-maker or recipient), decision-makers' use of money during the experiment, and time spent on decision making. The dictator game experimental sessions were carried out over 12 days. During the sessions, the participants were randomly divided into pairs. Each participant was randomly assigned either the role of decision-maker or recipient, forming ten decision-maker and recipient pairs. During the experiment, the decision-maker received a sum of money (16 euros), and the on-screen instructions instructed them to decide whether they wanted to give some of the money to the recipient who had been randomly assigned to them. The decision-makers were then asked to indicate how much money, if any, they would like to give to the recipient. The recipient could not influence the decision-maker's decision in any way, and they had to accept the sum that was given to them. The participants completed the experiment anonymously on computers at the PCRClab, and they were not informed of their pair's identity. The participants received a monetary reward for participating, in addition to their earnings from the dictator game.

The dictator game had four experimental conditions (treatment variable) which examined how different incentives (e.g. the participant's certainty or uncertainty about their own role in the game, empathy induction) affected decision making. In the baseline experimental condition, the decision-makers were told that they had been assigned the decision-maker role and there was no empathy induction. In the second experimental condition the decision-makers were informed of their role in the game but before they had to decide how much money they would like to give to their pair, empathy was induced by asking the decision-makers to consider how receiving different amounts of money would make the recipient feel. The decision-makers also had to write down their estimations of the recipient's feelings before they decided how much money they would give to the recipient. The two remaining experimental conditions were role uncertainty with no empathy induction and role uncertainty with empathy induction. In these experimental conditions, the decision-makers were told that they had not been assigned a role yet and that roles would be randomly assigned after all participants had made their decision. They were then asked to decide how much money they would give the recipient if they were the decision-maker. In each experimental condition, the time that the decision-makers took to make a decision was measured.

Background variables included the respondent's gender, birth year, the highest education attained, mother tongue, and degree of urbanisation.

Study description in machine readable DDI 2.0 format

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