This cross-cultural game theory research clearly shows that people in many cultures do not play economic games in the selfish way that traditional economic textbooks envision. And it appears that the differences in behavior are indeed rooted in culture-specific aspects of the group’s daily life. Individual differences among the members of a group—such as sex, age, education, and even personal wealth—did not affect the likelihood of rejecting an offer very much. Such choices apparently depend not so much on individual idiosyncrasies as on the sorts of economic activity a society engages in. In particular, average offers seemed to reflect a society’s amount of commerce with other groups. More experience participating in markets, the research suggested, produces not cutthroat competition, but a greater sense of fairness.

The stingy Machiguenga, for instance, are economically detached from most of the world—in fact, they hardly ever interact with anyone outside their own families. So their market-based economic activity is very limited, and their behavior is selfish. In cultures with more “market integration,” such as the cattle-trading Orma in Kenya, ultimatum game offers are generally higher, averaging 44 percent of the pot and often are as much as half.

Orma average offers are similar to those found with American college students. But sometimes students make low offers, and the Orma rarely do. College students find their low offers are usually rejected, but in some societies any offer is accepted, no matter how low. Among the Torguud Mongols of western Mongolia, for example, a low offer is rarely refused. Even so, Torguud offers averaged between 30 and 40 percent—despite the fact that the offerer would surely get more by offering less. Apparently the local Mongolian culture values fairness more than money. At the same time, inflicting punishment (by rejecting an offer) is not highly regarded there, either.

In society after society, the anthropologists discovered different ways in which cultural considerations dictated unselfish behavior. Among the Aché of Paraguay, for example, hunters often leave

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement