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Cooperative behavior in anonymous laboratory tasks is related to questionnaire measures of cooperation – but only at first exposure

Press release: "Does cooperation in the laboratory reflect the operation of a broad trait?"

Recently, an article by William McAuliffe, Eric Pedersen, Daniel Forster, and Michael McCullough titled, “Does cooperation in the laboratory reflect the operation of a broad trait?”, was published in the European Journal of Personality. In this study, McAuliffe and colleagues examined how cooperative behavior measured in a charitable giving task and during economic games was related to cooperation as measured in self- and peer-report questionnaires. Their results suggest that anonymous cooperation tasks are generally successful at removing social pressures to behave cooperatively, but only after people’s first experience with the games. The study was published in the January/February issue of the European Journal of Personality.

In their study, McAuliffe and colleagues examined how behavior in an anonymous charitable giving task and in economic games, in which individuals have to make decisions about whether or not to share money with anonymous strangers with whom they will never knowingly interact again, relate to cooperation as measured by questionnaires designed to tap into everyday cooperative behavior. Interestingly, the researchers found that during their first experience with the anonymous tasks, participants’ behavior very much mirrored that which they and a friend reported on the questionnaire. However, when they returned to the lab to complete the tasks again about a month later, their behavior did not correspond with the questionnaire reports. Speculating about the reason for this difference, McAuliffe said in an interview with the European Journal of Personality:

“Even though we are putting people into relatively anonymous contexts they’re still behaving as if the regular rules of social life apply because they’re just not used to making cooperation decisions that have no social consequences. … But after participants got paid after their first session, they realized that no one was grateful towards them for being nice, and no one was mad towards them for being selfish.”

Correspondence about this study may be addressed to the lead author, Mr. William McAuliffe, Evolution & Human Behavior Laboratory, Department of Psychology, Coral Gables, FL 33124-0751. The article can be read here. Mr. McAuliffe can be contacted via email on or via the contact form on

A conversation with Christian Kandler

Towards conceptualizing and assessing personality coherence and incoherence - Call for papers