Social Context and Moral Decisions

Three player trust game

Moral decisions are often not taken in isolation but within a social context. This paper tests the effect of social context on moral decisions in a simple three person trust game. The trustor has the possibility to either trust both trustees or none, and each of the trustees make an independent decision to return trust. We experimentally vary the social environment, (a) letting both trustees decide in isolation, (b) providing a follower trustee with information on the actual choice of a leader trustee and © a setting in which the follower trustee can condition her choice on the decision of the leader trustee using the strategy method. Follower trustees in the social context environments behave significantly more selfish—independent of the leader trustee’s choice—than trustees who either decide in isolation or make a conditional decision, limiting the power of even positive examples. Subjects seem to cherry pick an excuse for selfish behaviour: When the leader trustee plays selfish, they tend to conform; when the leader makes a pro-social choice, followers seem to perceive the responsibility towards the trustor as already fulfilled by the leader.