Off The Record #2: The effect of tangibility on altruism

Does owning something make you more or less generous?

Photo by Annie Spratt, Unsplash

Last week at Busara we ran a quick pilot to test out how the modality of money might change altruistic preferences. To measure this, we asked 150 respondents to participate in a series of dictator games, but randomly altered the method for how they decided to share value.

  • In the first group (Value) , they were asked to share any amount of their initial endowment with their randomly assigned partner by typing the number out on a screen.
  • In the second group (Tokens), they were given a set of tokens each valued at 10 KES worth the initial endowment, and then asked to physically transfer what they wanted to share to their partner’s bucket.
  • In the third group (Cash) they were given real 10 KES coins worth the initial endowment, and then asked to physically transfer what they wanted to share to their partner’s bucket

Results from this rapid pilot showed that value modality has no measurable effect on altruistic preferences, so we should not stress too much on the physicality of the financial decision, at least in altruism games. This is worth exploring further in public goods, investment, or other earnings oriented games.

While we thought that the value tangibility might shift preferences, we didn’t have strong priors on which way. For instance, you could imagine that more tangible value might make individuals more selfish, as they could see and feel the money and imagine what they would do with it. Conversely, you could imagine an opposite effect caused by inequality aversion and distributing the endowment between you and your partner.

What did we find? Surprisingly no differences between modality.

Show me the money (or token, or value) — it doesn’t seam to matter much.

We split our analysis into two categories:

  1. The optimist — This is encouraging on a methods level given the variety of tools we often develop to make decision-making games more engaging, interactive, or real, particularly in rural settings.
  2. The skeptic — There is potential that the amounts were too small (200 KES overall) to have mattered much, but given these are comparable amounts to most games played, we shouldn’t worry too much.

In order to develop this idea further, it could be worth running the same experiment with investment or earning games and higher stakes for participants.


In this “Off the Record” series we share findings from small, rapid research we have conducted in our lab in Nairobi, Kenya.Read more about our “Off the Record” initiative here, and previous posts here.

Let us know your thoughts and comments below, and stay tuned for our next Off the Record!