Experimental evidence for a pure collaboration effect

Mary C. McGrath*, Alan S. Gerber

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review

7 Scopus citations


What makes us willing to sacrifice our own self-interest for another person? Humans can forgo short-term individual gain to achieve long-term benefits 1–4 —but long-run self-interest cannot fully explain unselfish behaviour 5 . Collaboration in our evolutionary past may have played a role in shaping an innate human sense of distributive justice 6 , influencing who we consider deserving of our aid or generosity. Previous research has not been able to isolate this response to collaboration as an independent effect, distinct from other motivations to share 7,8 . Here we present evidence of a pure collaboration effect, distinct from motivations of future reciprocity, in-group favouritism or concern for accountability. We demonstrate this effect among adult subjects in an economic setting, showing that the effect constitutes a psychological phenomenon with relevance for real-world social and political behaviour. This collaboration effect is substantial: it motivates sharing among people otherwise inclined to share nothing and increases the proportion of participants willing to give up half of their allotted money. We find evidence supporting our hypothesis that the collaboration effect operates by creating a sense of debt owed to one’s collaborator.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)354-360
Number of pages7
JournalNature human behaviour
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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