University of Bonn and University of Cologne, Reinhard Selten Institute (RSI), Bonn and Cologne
Social norms pervade human interaction, but their demands are often in conflict. To understand behavior, it is thus crucial to know how individuals resolve normative tradeoffs. This paper proposes that sincere judgments about the relative importance of conflicting norms are shaped by personal interest. We show that people tend to follow norms from which they benefit themselves, even in contexts where their own decisions only affect others. In a (virtual) laboratory experiment, each subject makes two decisions over allocations of points within a group of two other participants. The sets of possible allocations entail different normative tradeoffs, and subjects have no personal stakes in their own decisions. However, they are affected by others' decisions: each subject is part of a group, and the members of different groups simultaneously decide over others' allocations along a circle. We find that subjects' decisions are biased towards the normative principles aligned with their own interests, thereby favoring other players whenever these share those interests. Subjects' beliefs about the choices made by others suggest a largely unconscious mechanism. Moreover, survey answers indicate that the effects are driven by self-centered reasoning: subjects who report pronounced perspective-taking are less biased.