Women put men to shame in the generosity game

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The Independent Online
IT'S official: women are not as selfish as men. Economists have proved beyond doubt what women have long suspected by posing the ultimate question: how much of a cash windfall will men and women give away?

The bottom line is that nearly two-thirds of the men in a controlled experiment donated precisely zilch, compared with fewer than half the women. In fact, the females were precisely twice as generous as the males on average.

The experiments, carried out at the University of Texas and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, were designed to test the widespread supposition in the social sciences that women tend to be more selfless. It is a view that dates back to the birth of modern science.

Charles Darwin, for example, wrote in The Descent of Man in 1874: "Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness ... Man delights in competition and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness."

Past evidence in favour of this assumption has been surprisingly inconclusive, however. But the two economists, Catherine Eckel and Philip Grossman, reckoned that if they could prove such differences existed even when money was at stake, it would support the conventional sociological view.

The catch was that it would undermine the bedrock assumption in economics that all individuals are alike and always act rationally in their own best financial interest. The results of the experiment, reported in the latest issue of the Economic Journal, show that the sociologists are right and the economists wrong.

In completely anonymous trials, students, who had already been paid an attendance fee, were asked to give any amount they wanted from an envelope containing an additional $10 to an unknown partner. Nobody could know how much they gave away, there was no financial risk, and they did not know who would get the money.

The point of the anonymity was to remove factors that might have influenced the earlier, inconclusive research.

For instance, in past tests women have tended to bond better with other women, and some men displayed either chivalrous or bullying behaviour when paired with women. The new experimental design left generosity as the only possible motive for giving away cash.

The results, which passed every test of statistical significance, showed that 60 per cent of men, but only 46 per cent of women gave away nothing. The average female donation was $1.60 compared to $0.82 for men. A full 15 per cent, or one in seven, of the women gave away half of their $10 windfall, compared to 3 per cent of the men.

It left the two researchers in no doubt. "Women are less selfish then men," they concluded.