Desperation and inequality increase stealing: evidence from experimental microsocieties

Setayesh Radkani, Eleanor Holton, Benoît de Courson, Rebecca Saxe, Daniel Nettle*

*Corresponding author for this work

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People facing material deprivation are more likely to turn to acquisitive crime. It is not clear why it makes sense for them to do so, given that apprehension and punishment may make their situation even worse. Recent theory suggests that people should be more willing to steal if they are on the wrong side of a ‘desperation threshold’; that is, a level of resources critical to wellbeing. Below such a threshold, people should pursue any risky behaviour that offers the possibility of a short route back above, and should be insensitive to the severity of possible punishments, since they have little left to lose. We developed a multi-round, multi-player economic game with a desperation threshold and the possibility of theft as well as cooperation. Across four experiments with 1000 UK and US adults, we showed that falling short of a desperation threshold increased stealing from other players, even when the payoff from stealing was negative on average. Within the microsocieties created in the game, the presence of more players with below-threshold resources produced low trust, driven by the experience of being stolen from. Contrary to predictions, our participants appeared to be somewhat sensitive to the severity of punishment for being caught trying to steal. Our results show, in an experimental microcosm, that some members of society falling short of a threshold of material desperation can have powerful social consequences.
Original languageEnglish
Article number221385
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jul 2023
Externally publishedYes

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