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Perceived relative social status and cognitive load influence acceptance of unfair offers in the Ultimatum Game

Alison Harris, Aleena Young, Livia Hughson, Danielle Green, Stacey N Doan, Eric Hughson and Catherine L Reed

PLOS ONE, 2020, vol. 15, issue 1, 1-18

Abstract: Participants in the Ultimatum Game will often reject unfair resource allocations at personal cost, reflecting a trade-off between financial gain and maintenance of social standing. Although this rejection behavior is linked to executive control, the exact role of cognitive regulation in relation to status cues is unclear. We propose that the salience of status cues affects how cognitive regulation resolves the conflict between financial gain and social status considerations. Situations that tax executive control by limiting available cognitive resources should increase acceptance rates for unfair offers, particularly when the conflict between economic self-interest and social reputation is high. Here, participants rated their own subjective social status, and then either mentally counted (Load) or ignored (No Load) simultaneously-presented tones while playing two rounds of the Ultimatum Game with an online (sham) “Proposer” of either high or low social status. A logistic regression revealed an interaction of Proposer status with cognitive load. Compared to the No Load group, the Load group showed higher acceptance rates for unfair offers from the high-status Proposer. In contrast, cognitive load did not influence acceptance rates for unfair offers from the low-status Proposer. Additionally, Proposer status interacted with the relative social distance between participant and Proposer. Participants close in social distance to the high-status Proposer were more likely to accept the unfair offer than those farther in social distance, whereas the opposite pattern was observed for offers from the low-status Proposer. Although rejection of unfair offers in the Ultimatum Game has previously been conceptualized as an intuitive response, these results instead suggest it reflects a deliberative strategy, dependent on cognitive resources, to prioritize social standing over short-term financial gain. This study reveals the dynamic interplay of cognitive resources and status concerns within this paradigm, providing new insights into when and why people reject inequitable divisions of resources.

Date: 2020
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DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0227717

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