A fun article in the NYT last week (hat tip to Bobbi McAdoo for sending this along) noted a new way of taking advantage of those too inebriated to turn down empirical scientists–run experiments on them! The scientists were interested in how the ultimatum game works when people are a little fuzzy in their thinking. The ultimatum game, you might recall, is when one person is given some amount of money (say$100) and told that they can give as much or as little of that amount to the other player. The other player receives that “ultimatum” and then can accept that offer or not. Both players only get the money if the recipient of the offer agrees to the division.
So the scientists, from Carnegie Mellon University, went down to a strip of bars on the South Side in Pittsburgh “where participants were often at a level of intoxication that is greater than is ethical to induce and also did controlled testing, in labs, of people randomly selected to get drunk.” (Let me note for the record that I might have some firsthand knowledge of this particular strip of bars known, at least many years ago, for having people drink out of fishbowls, glass boots, etc.)
As the NYT outlines,
The rational move in any single game is for the second person to take whatever is offered. (It’s more than he came in with.) But in fact, most people reject offers of less than 30 percent of the total, punishing offers they perceive as unfair. Why?
The academic debate boils down to two competing explanations. On one hand, players might be strategically suppressing their self-interest, turning down cash now in the hope that if there are future games, the “proposer” will make better offers. On the other hand, players might simply be lashing out in anger.
The scholars were interested in drunkenness because intoxication, as other social-science experiments have shown, doesn’t fuzz up judgment so much as cause the drinker to overly focus on the most prominent cue in his environment. If the long-term-strategy hypothesis were true, drunken players would be more inclined to accept any amount of cash. (Money on the table generates more-visceral responses than long-term goals do.) If the anger/revenge theory were true, however, drunken players would become less likely to accept low offers: raw anger would trump money-lust.
In both setups, drunken players were less likely than their sober peers to accept offers of less than 50 percent of the total. The finding suggests, the authors said, that the principal impulse driving subjects was a wish for revenge.
I actually disagree with their conclusion. I don’t think the principal impulse here was revenge but rather a sense of fairness–and that this positive feeling is what is determining behavior. Much less than 50% of the game money seems unfair and I think that being a little buzzed is more likely to supress rational thought (any money is better than no money) and more likely to heighten feelings of justice and injustice. (Of course, this would also explain bar fights–if our feelings of injustice and unfairness are heightened when we are drunk, we are more likely to take a swing at the perceived infraction than to think rationally about the consequences of our actions.) By the way, let me know if anyone wants to run this experiment here in Milwaukee!