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Selfishness As a Potential Cause of Crime. A Prison Experiment

Thorsten Chmura (), Christoph Engel () and Markus Englerth

No 2013_05, Discussion Paper Series of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods from Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods

Abstract: For a rational choice theorist, the absence of crime is more difficult to explain than its presence. Arguably, the expected value of criminal sanctions, i.e. the product of severity times certainty, is often below the expected benefit. We rely on a standard theory from behavioral economics, inequity aversion, to offer an explanation. This theory could also explain how imperfect criminal sanctions deter crime. The critical component of the theory is aversion against outperforming others. To test this theory, we exploit that it posits inequity aversion to be a personality trait. We can therefore test it in a very simple standard game. Inequity averse individuals give a fraction of their endowment to another anonymous, unendowed participant. We have prisoners play this game, and compare results to findings from a meta-study of more than 100 dictator games with non-prisoners. Surprisingly, results do not differ, not even if we only compare with other dictator games among close-knit groups. To exclude social proximity as an explanation, we retest prisoners on a second dictator game where the recipient is a charity. Prisoners give more, not less.

Keywords: crime; imperfect sanctions; selfishness; inequity aversion; dictator game; social proximity; charity (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: A12 C91 C93 D03 D63 K14 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2013-03
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-cbe, nep-evo, nep-exp, nep-hpe and nep-soc
References: View references in EconPapers View complete reference list from CitEc
Citations: View citations in EconPapers (2)

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