Is it all about the self? The effect of self-control depletion on ultimatum game proposers

Eliran Halali, Yoella Bereby-Meyer, Axel Ockenfels

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56 Scopus citations


In the ultimatum-game, as in many real-life social exchange situations, the selfish motive to maximize own gains conflicts with fairness preferences. In the present study we manipulated the availability of cognitive-control resources for ultimatum-game proposers to test whether preference for fairness is a deliberative cognitive-controlled act or an automatic act. In two experiments we found that a shortage of cognitive control (ego depletion) led proposers in the ultimatum game (UG) to propose significantly more equal split offers than non-depleted proposers. These results can be interpreted as resulting from an automatic concern for fairness, or from a greater fear of rejection, which would be in line with a purely self-interested response. To separate these competing explanations, in Experiment 2 we conducted a dictator-game in which the responder cannot reject the offer. In contrast to the increased fairness behavior demonstrated by depleted ultimatum-game proposers, we found that depleted dictator-game allocators chose the equal split significantly less often than non-depleted allocators. These results indicate that fairness preferences are automatically driven among UG proposers. The automatic fair behavior, however, at least partially reflects concern about self-interest gain. We discuss different explanations for these results.

Original languageEnglish
Article number240
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
StatePublished - 13 Jun 2013
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2013 Halali, Bereby-Meyer and Ockenfels.


  • Cognitive-control
  • Dictator game
  • Dual process
  • Ego-depletion
  • Fairness
  • Self-control
  • Social preferences
  • Ultimatum game


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