Behavioral and Brain Sciences

“Economic man” in cross-cultural perspective: Behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies

Joseph Henrich a1, Robert Boyd a2, Samuel Bowles a3, Colin Camerer a4, Ernst Fehr a5, Herbert Gintis a6, Richard McElreath a7, Michael Alvard a8, Abigail Barr a9, Jean Ensminger a4, Natalie Smith Henrich a10, Kim Hill a11, Francisco Gil-White a12, Michael Gurven a13, Frank W. Marlowe a14, John Q. Patton a15 and David Tracer a16
a1 Department of Anthropology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322
a2 Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095
a3 Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM 87501; Faculty of Economics, University of Siena, 53100 Siena, Italy
a4 Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, Caltech, Pasadena, CA 91125
a5 University of Zurich, CH-8006, Zurich, Switzerland
a6 Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM 87501; Faculty of Economics, Central European University, H-1051 Budapest, Hungary
a7 Department of Anthropology, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616
a8 Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843-4352
a9 Centre for the Study of African Economies, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3UL, United Kingdom
a10 ORC Macro, Atlanta, GA 30329
a11 Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131-1086
a12 Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6196
a13 Department of Anthropology, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106
a14 Department of Anthropology, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
a15 Department of Anthropology, California State University, Fullerton, Fullerton, CA 92834-6846
a16 Department of Anthropology and Health and Behavioral Sciences, University of Colorado at Denver, Denver, CO 80217


Researchers from across the social sciences have found consistent deviations from the predictions of the canonical model of self-interest in hundreds of experiments from around the world. This research, however, cannot determine whether the uniformity results from universal patterns of human behavior or from the limited cultural variation available among the university students used in virtually all prior experimental work. To address this, we undertook a cross-cultural study of behavior in ultimatum, public goods, and dictator games in a range of small-scale societies exhibiting a wide variety of economic and cultural conditions. We found, first, that the canonical model – based on self-interest – fails in all of the societies studied. Second, our data reveal substantially more behavioral variability across social groups than has been found in previous research. Third, group-level differences in economic organization and the structure of social interactions explain a substantial portion of the behavioral variation across societies: the higher the degree of market integration and the higher the payoffs to cooperation in everyday life, the greater the level of prosociality expressed in experimental games. Fourth, the available individual-level economic and demographic variables do not consistently explain game behavior, either within or across groups. Fifth, in many cases experimental play appears to reflect the common interactional patterns of everyday life.

Key Words: altruism; cooperation; cross-cultural research; experimental economics; game theory; ultimatum game; public goods game; self-interest.