Different Games for Different Motives: Comment on Haesevoets, Folmer, and Van Hiel (2015)
Isabel Thielmann1,2, Robert Böhm3, and Benjamin E. Hilbig1
1Department of Psychology, University of Koblenz-Landau, Landau, Germany
2Center for Doctoral Studies in Social and Behavioral Sciences, University of Mannheim,
3School of Business and Economics, RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, Germany
This article has been published in European Journal of Personality. This accepted manuscript
version might not exactly replicate the official version published in the journal.
The published version of this article is available at https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2007.
Please cite as:
Thielmann, I., Böhm, R., & Hilbig, B. E. (2015). Different games for different motives: Comment
on Haesevoets, Folmer, and Van Hiel (2015). European Journal of Personality, 29(4), 506-508.
DIFFERENT GAMES FOR DIFFERENT MOTIVES 2
Recently, Haesevoets, Folmer, and Van Hiel strongly questioned the comparability and
equivalence of different mixed-motive situations as modeled in economic games. Particularly,
the authors found that different games correlated only weakly on average and loaded on two
separate factors. In turn, personality traits failed to consistently account for behavioral tendencies
across games. Contrary to the conclusions of Haesevoets et al., these findings are actually
perfectly in line with the game-theoretic understanding of the different economic games. If one
considers the variety of specific motives underlying decisions in different games, Haesevoets et
al.’s findings actually support the validity of different games rather than questioning it. This, in
turn, emphasizes the necessity for the plethora of different games that have been developed over
decades in economics and psychology.
DIFFERENT GAMES FOR DIFFERENT MOTIVES 3
Mixed-motive situations – modeled in so-called economic games – provide a
straightforward, transparent, and efficient approach to study pro-social behavior in various social
interactions. However, the exact relations between behavioral tendencies in different games are
insufficiently understood (cf. Yamagishi et al., 2013). In a well-designed experiment,
Haesevoets, Folmer, and Van Hiel (2015) addressed this issue, examining associations between
several popular games: the Dictator Game (DG), the Ultimatum Bargaining Game (UG), the
Prisoner’s Dilemma Game (PDG), the Assurance Game (AG), the Public Goods Game (PGG),
the Common-Pool Resource Dilemma Game (CDG), and the Trust Game (TG). Contrary to the
hypothesis that all mixed-motive situations should involve an equivalent conflict between self-
interest and concern for others (self-others-conflict, in what follows), the authors merely
observed a small-to-medium-sized average correlation across all games which, in turn, loaded on
two separate factors rather than one common factor. Correspondingly, dispositional variables
(e.g., Social Value Orientation; SVO) – hypothesized to constitute the common core of pro-
sociality across games – merely accounted for small portions of variance in behavior. The
authors hence concluded that evidence “calls into question the general idea that all mixed-motive
games bring the conflict between selfish interests and concern for others to the foreground”
(manuscript p. 9).
Unlike this rather pessimistic reasoning regarding the validity of economic games, we
argue that Haesevoets et al.’s results nicely converge with game-theoretic assumptions and the
differentiated consideration of social preferences in behavioral economics (Binmore, 2010). In
particular, the specific self-others-conflict characterizing each game is shaped by several motives
decisive for pro-social behavior (e.g., Fehr & Schmidt, 2006; Van Lange, De Cremer, Van Dijk,
DIFFERENT GAMES FOR DIFFERENT MOTIVES 4
& Van Vugt, 2007), and – corresponding to interdependence theory (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978) –
these motives actually differ across games (cf. Table 1). For clarification, consider the decisions
to donate blood (mainly an altruistic act, as captured by the DG), to exchange one’s second keys
with one’s neighbor (mainly an act of mutual trust, as captured by the AG), and to take the bike
instead of the car for the sake of environmental protection (mainly an act of social welfare
maximization, as captured by the CDG). Although these situations obviously share certain
motives driving pro-social behavior, they also show considerable motivational differences
suggesting only weak behavioral links a priori (cf. Table 1).
In general, the nature, number, and salience (e.g., Betsch, Böhm, & Korn, 2013; Dhont,
Van Hiel, & De Cremer, 2012) of motives should affect which motivational components of
players’ utility functions (von Neumann & Morgenstern, 1944) are decisive in a certain situation.
In other words, the additive combination of utility-relevant motives basically determines the
Thus, the motives involved can be understood as the forces acting on
the player, either pushing the player to the selfish or to the pro-social choice. A weak average
correlation across various games may hence simply indicate that players adapt and optimize their
behavior depending on game-specific differences in these forces and the resulting conflict. Thus,
it actually supports the validity of the games: Although they share certain aspects (i.e., fairness,
altruism; cf. Table 1) – which, one may argue is sufficiently supported by a relatively moderate
overall correlation – they are primarily designed to measure different motives; by implication,
there cannot be a large overall correlation. Instead, certain games should correlate rather
strongly, as indeed they do in Haesevoets et al.’s data. In what follows, we elaborate on three
prominent motives on which the games investigated by Haesevoets et al. differ (i.e., social
Note that this also implies that apparent structural game characteristics (sequential vs. simultaneous play or dyad
vs. group) are negligible in themselves unless they alter the presence and/or salience of motives.
DIFFERENT GAMES FOR DIFFERENT MOTIVES 5
welfare concerns, greed, and fear; for definitions see Table 1) and show that the authors’ findings
actually nicely mirror these motivational differences.
Social welfare concerns
Social welfare refers to the aggregated sum of players’ payoffs, i.e., the collective interest
(e.g., Charness & Rabin, 2002; Wilke, 1991). Depending on whether social welfare changes for a
selfish versus pro-social choice, two game types can be distinguished. Specifically, if social
welfare is equivalent across choices (e.g., in the DG and UBG), the game becomes a constant-
sum game (von Neumann & Morgenstern, 1944) and social welfare concerns are irrelevant in
players’ utility functions (i.e., leading to indifference between strategies according to this utility
component). By contrast, if social welfare increases for a pro-social choice (e.g., in the PGG and
TG), the game becomes a social dilemma (e.g., Dawes, 1980; Kollock, 1998) and social welfare
concerns constitute a decisive component in players’ utility functions.
Considering this distinction between constant-sum games and social dilemmas,
Haesevoets et al.’s finding of two separate game factors is both reasonable and consistent with
game theory. In fact, in their study, constant-sum games and social dilemmas loaded on different
factors. Thus, the findings provide compelling empirical evidence that the games are not
equivalent and that social welfare concerns indeed matter for economic decision-making (see
also Engelmann & Strobel, 2004).
Greed and fear
Beyond social welfare concerns, economic games differ regarding the involvement and
effects of greed, i.e., the motive to maximize one’s own absolute payoff, and fear, i.e., the
DIFFERENT GAMES FOR DIFFERENT MOTIVES 6
expectation that the opponent player(s) will act selfishly or punish one’s own selfish behavior
(e.g., Bruins, Liebrand, & Wilke, 1989; Simpson, 2006; cf. Table 1). For example, in the DG
greed drives selfish behavior, whereas in the AG and TG greed drives pro-social behavior. This,
in turn, nicely fits Haesevoets et al.’s finding that the smallest associations with the DG emerged
for the AG (r = .15) and the TG (r = .13), respectively. The same applies to the overall weak
associations for the UBG: In all games but the UBG, fear drives selfish (and not pro-social)
Most strikingly, the interplay of greed and fear may even affect the game-theoretic
equilibrium solution of a game, i.e., the combination of players’ strategies for which no player
has an incentive to change her strategy (Osborne & Rubinstein, 1994). For example, in the AG, a
player can only achieve the best individual outcome if both players cooperate (which constitutes
one of two Nash-equilibria in pure strategies). By contrast, in the PDG, the best individual
outcome is associated with unilateral defection (the unique Nash-equilibrium). Thus, it is
reasonable that, for example, the correlation between PDG and AG was only weak in Haesevoets
et al.’s study (r = .10) although these two games appear similar in structure at a first glance.
Altogether, Haesevoets et al.’s findings hence support the differential involvement and effects of
greed and fear in economic decisions as implied by game theory.
Summary and conclusion
In sum, Haesevoets et al.’s conclusions are too pessimistic in light of game-theoretic
models of social preferences in behavioral economics. Without doubt, different economic games
have been developed to unveil specific aspects of pro-social behavior which, in turn, is perfectly
compatible with Haesevoets et al.’s findings. Consequently, it is actually necessary that no single
DIFFERENT GAMES FOR DIFFERENT MOTIVES 7
trait variable will explain stable behavioral tendencies across games. For example, SVO should
only drive pro-social behavior through fairness, altruism, and social welfare, but not through fear
or greed. In consequence, the relation between SVO and pro-social behavior should be
particularly diminished in those games in which fear and/or greed drive pro-social behavior (i.e.,
UBG, AG, and TG; cf. Table 1) – which is exactly what Haesevoets et al. observe. To account
for behaviors in various games, one will need to consider a composition of personality traits
capturing different pro-social tendencies (e.g., the HEXACO model of personality; Zhao &
Smillie, in press). In any case, researchers should place care on the fine-grained differences
between economic games. Indeed, since these differences are still insufficiently understood,
further research is needed to determine which motives are particularly decisive for pro-social
behavior in certain situations, both in the absence and presence of other relevant motives.
Haesevoets et al.’s findings provide a valuable starting point for this endeavor.
DIFFERENT GAMES FOR DIFFERENT MOTIVES 8
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Summary of Economic Games Used by Haesevoets et al. with Motives Underlying Pro-Social versus Selfish Choices.
A dictator is asked to divide a fixed amount at will between
herself and an unknown recipient.
A proposer is asked to divide a fixed amount between
herself and an unknown recipient. The recipient can, in turn,
accept versus reject the proposer’s offer.
Two individuals decide whether to cooperate or defect.
Mutual cooperation leads to the highest joint outcome;
unilateral defection leads to the highest individual outcome.
trust, social welfare
Two individuals decide whether to cooperate or defect
(similar to the PDG). Mutual cooperation leads to the
highest individual outcome.
greed, trust, social
Group members are asked to contribute to a public good
which is, in turn, multiplied by a factor larger than one and
shared equally across all group members (irrespective of
their individual contribution).
trust, social welfare
Group members decide how much to harvest from a shared
resource. If the collective consumption exceeds the size (and
reproduction rate) of the resource, it gets depleted.
trust, social welfare
A trustor decides how to divide an endowment between
herself and the trustee. The amount the investor transfers is
usually tripled and added to the trustee’s earnings. As a
response, the trustee can transfer any amount back to the
greed, trust, social
DIFFERENT GAMES FOR DIFFERENT MOTIVES 11
Note. Fairness: min(∣own – other/s∣); altruism: max(other/s); trust: expectation that other/s play/s min(other/s), min(other/s – own), or
max(own); social welfare: max(own + other/s); greed: max(own); fear: expectation that other/s play/s max(other/s), max(other/s –
own), or min(own); competitiveness: max(own – other/s).
aThe UBG is a special case of a constant-sum game given that the payoff for both players can be 0 (if the recipient rejects the offer).
However, for the proposer, the different strategies lead to a constant sum of payoffs.
bThe TG is a social dilemma from the perspective of the trustor, and a constant-sum game from the perspective of the trustee.