Altruism Alert: Just Ask

Altruism is a regular topic on this blog, and had its own chapter in SuperFreakonomics. New research (earlier, ungated version here) looks at one factor that may affect altruism in the real world: communication. James Andreoni and Justin M. Rao had participants play the Dictator game, with one subject allocating $10 between himself and the other subject. “We found that any time the recipient spoke, giving increased – asking is powerful,” the authors conclude. “But when only allocators could speak, choices were significantly more selfish than any other condition. When empathy was heightened by putting allocators ‘in the receivers shoes,’ altruism appeared as if recipients had been able to ask, even when they were silent.” [%comments]


This shouldn't be too shocking to anyone. In a semi-similar real life situation, people are probably more likely to donate to a homeless person who speaks and asks for money than one who simply holds a sign.


This is one of the most fascinating results I've heard in quite some time. Although I'm only vaguely familiar with this James Andreoni's work, I have complete confidence in this result knowing that Dr. Justin Rao's research is always very thorough. I look forward to incorporating this result into my everyday life, making myself a more common recipient of altruism in the process. Thanks for sharing!


This is interesting, although its unclear in this blurb as to what exactly is being said in the verbal exchange. I'm assuming the recipient specifically ASKED for money?

I'd like to see a follow-up study that would expound on how specific scripts would influence the results. I'm thinking there might be some surprising findings, like negatively perceived aggressive communication still being more effective than no communication at all. Why would someone give something to an individual that wouldn't even speak to them?

Is communication of any kind a sign of a willingness to engage and some kind of relationship? Is ignoring the death knell to any friendship/exchange?

Maybe "altruism" really pivots on the human need/desire for relationships. Maybe a sense of connection to another is the unspoken and immeasureable reward.

Altruism/relationship, maybe for a personal god, maybe for others, seems to take us beyond natural laws of behavioral psychology. So what is this "altruism" really do, anyways? Maybe its not a finite act, maybe its a creative beginning. Altruism creates relationship, if not for a lifetime, for a moment.




James Andreoni is incredibly well-respected in the experimental economics community. He has done a lot of experimental work on altruism and reciprocity in simple non-cooperative games.

Alex Verkhivker


Are you related to Justin Rao?