Young people's propensity to behave pro-socially and altruistically towards others

In collaboration with London Metropolitan University

  • Awarded to: Ian Nicoll
  • Sponsor(s): British Academy
  • Funding Awarded to Exeter: £3,864 (total funding of £7,500)
  • Dates: 1 April 2008 - 30 June 2009


This research will add to our understanding of young people’s social attitudes towards others, and in particular illuminate their pro-social behaviour through the use of the ‘ultimatum game’

The Ultimatum Game

Classical economic theories are based on the assumption that the individual tries to maximise their self-interest. In any situation where a choice is offered, the individual will calculate how to obtain their greatest gain.

The Ultimatum game offers a striking challenge to this assumption. In this, two players, unknown to each other, are asked to make decisions about a single sum of money. Typically, this has been demonstrated between two adults, one of who is asked to be ‘the proposer’, the other to be ‘the acceptor’. The challenger is given a sum of money – typically 10 dollars, and asked to split this into two sums. They then offer one sum to the acceptor. If the acceptor agrees to accept the sum they are offered, then both challenger and acceptor take their sum. If the acceptor refuses to accept the sum offered, then neither of the two gets anything. The game is only played once, and they are told this in advance, so that there is no possibility of implicitly agreeing shared tactics.

When this game has been run with adults in a wide variety of western societies, most proposers offer between 40 and 50%, and most acceptors will reject offers of less than 30%, preferring to take nothing. The game has also recently been tried with a wide variety of peoples in very simple non-western economies where results have not been identical to those in western societies – some have consistently offered more than half, some less, depending on varying cultural norms.

What has not been properly attempted is to try this game with children. Is this behaviour learned? If so, at what age, and how? Or is it innate? That is what we will attempt to begin to explore.

Our research
The purpose of our research is to see if this behaviour is replicated by children/young people in four different countries: Poland, Turkey, Spain and England. In each case the game will be played within schools in the respective countries in year one, and then across countries in year two. The experiment will be carried out with 120 children aged 11, 120 pupils aged 14 and 120 pupils aged 17 in each country. In each case, half of these pupils will be in rural areas and half in urban. In the UK this is Devon and London. As well as recording how the participants divide the money, there will be short exit interviews with each child to find out why they made the decision they did and how they felt about it.

Data will be compared within country (with variables of age and location) and then across country. Early results will be presented at the CiCe Conference in Malmo, Sweden, in May 2009.
Associate Professor Cathie Holden