How Much Should You Give?

Prosociality has a price.

Posted Nov 12, 2020

"Give him an inch and he'll take an ell." — J. Heywood (1546)

Experiments in psychology and economics are designed to capture what is essential in everyday behavior and to bring to light the mental processes that make behavior happen. Much interpersonal behavior involves elements of attempted influence, bargaining, or negotiation. A famous demonstration involves the foot-in-the-door effect, where a large request follows a small one, and compliance with the large request is thereby increased (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). Able manipulators get from their targets what the targets don’t want to give and without them knowing that they are being had. In contrast, the ultimatum game can stir up strong emotions. The taker can offer an unfair deal and get away with it if the inequity is not too large (Güth et al., 1982). Yet, resentment may linger in the ultimatum’s wake.

The foot-in-the-door effect and the ultimatum game are simple in design and elegant in execution; they have each deservedly stimulated a wealth of research. Many interpersonal encounters are more complex, though, and we often struggle to map them onto a familiar paradigm. Here is an example: Alpha is planning a reading of her new book to a group of 50 bibliophiles. The event is closed, but a bit of space with extra chairs can be arranged. The reading is scheduled for a Saturday morning at 9:00. Omega is an acquaintance of Alpha’s. Om has her own reading group and Al thinks that members of Om’s group might also enjoy Al’s reading. Al offers to make five additional seats available but asks that the additional attendees sign in in advance and commit to showing up. Om, however, says she will notify 10 of her group members of the opportunity and leave it to them to either come or stay away. The event is, says Om, scheduled for 9:00 a.m. after all, so attendance is uncertain. 

Al dislikes Om’s alternative, while Om thinks her proposed modification is fine. In Om’s view, what is in play is simply opportunities. Whether they are taken or foregone is up to the choosers, that is, the would-be additional attendees of Al’s reading. Al, in contrast, has to consider the prospect of unpleasant self-conscious emotions. Since Al has created the extra opportunity, it being taken or rejected will reflect on its perceived value. The worst possible outcome is the lack of any additional attendees after room for them has been made. This outcome is analogous to a dictator game where the receiver (as in the ultimatum game) has the option to refuse an offered share because it is not "good enough," but without the dictator losing any money – only face. In our scenario, Al invests to create prosocial value only to find herself in a position of emotional risk. Om, perceiving a no-harm-no-foul situation, fails to take Al’s perspective. Instead, she thinks that Al is being improperly demanding when asking for any interest in attending to be backed up by a (no-cost) commitment to appear.

This quasi real-life scenario is still fairly complicated. What might a simple behavioral experiment look like? Perhaps a modified dictator/ultimatum game can capture the scenario’s essence (Hoffman et al., 1996). Al, the dictator, gets an endowment of $10 and for the price of $1 she can generate another $5 benefit for Om, the subject. In return, she asks that Om also surrenders $1 of her $10 endowment to realize the deal. Om counters that she wishes not to pay $1 because it is a sure loss for her, and that it makes no material difference to Al. Om, in other words, asks Al to put up $1 so that she, Om, may gain $5 instead of $4. This arrangement captures some features of the book reading scenario, but it leaves out the critical possibility that an improved offer from Al may not even be accepted by Om. To allow for this possibility, we might focus on the role of trust (Evans & Krueger, 2009). By asking Om to pay a small commitment fee, Al is arguably signaling a lack of trust. Om, in turn, doubles down by demanding trust and making more salient the possibility that this trust may go unrewarded. Al might counter by calling attention to fairness. If Al accepted a small cost to generate value for Om, why should not Om be prepared to make the same kind of investment?

There is something dispiriting about the fragility of prosocial gestures (Schwartz, 1967). What should be a cooperative win-win situation can easily degenerate into a competitive lose-lose situation, if at least one party perceives their gains to be insufficient or comparatively inferior. Attributions of selfish intent, lack of trust, or deliberate maneuvering can doom the exchange. It is facile to demand that any prosocial behavior should involve no strings whatsoever as it creates an all-or-nothing mindset. In the end, we are often left with nothing.

Finally, it should be noted that our Alpha-Omega story has the ingredients of a power struggle. Alpha made an offer whose generosity Om perceives (or claims) to be insufficient. Om might claim (or perceive) that Al is making a power move, effectively dictating terms to Om, generous as they may be. Om’s rejection of the initial offer and counter-demand is an even less concealed power move. Al might figure that acceptance amounts to appeasement and perhaps even surrender. Al (and perhaps Om) may worry about precedent and slipperiness of the slope (Zitek & Krause, 2019).   


Evans, A. M., & Krueger, J. I. (2009). The psychology (and economics) of trust. Social and Personality Psychology Compass: Intrapersonal Processes, 3, 1003-1017.

Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(2), 195–202.

Güth, W., Schmittberger, R., & Schwarze, B. (1982). An experimental analysis of ultimatum bargaining. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 3, 367–88.

Hoffman, E., McCabe, K., & Smith, V. (1996). Social distance and other-regarding behavior in dictator games. American Economic Review, 86, 653-60.

Schwartz, B. (1967). The social psychology of the gift. The American Journal of Sociology, 73(1), 1-11.

Zitek, E. M., & Krause, V. (2019). Give them an inch, and they’ll expect a mile: The effects of authority leniency on subordinate entitlement. Advances in Group Processes, 36, 117-139.