Social motives in children: Greed and fear in a social bargaining game

Shanshan Zhen*, Rongjun Yu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Cooperation often coexists with defection in social interactions. Individuals may choose non-cooperation in social dilemmas either out of fear (fear of being exploited by a non-cooperative player) or out of greed (the desire to increase private payoff by defecting from a cooperative player). However, the developmental trajectories of such motives in social interactions remain unclear. In order to find out how fear and greed influence children's cooperative behaviors differentially, children aged 7 to 11 were tested in Study 1 using a modified repeated one-shot prisoner's dilemma game (PDG) in which the incentives to be greedy or fearful were parametrically and independently manipulated. Results showed that children were sensitive to the greed effect at age 7 and their sensitivity was stable across middle childhood, while only 11-year-old children were significantly affected by fear when the greed level was low. These findings suggest that in the context of PDG, sensitivity to social threat increases with age across middle childhood especially under low temptation to exploit others, and the greed motive may be less influenced by age in this period. By continuing to use the same experiment with young adults, Study 2 revealed that young adults also demonstrated a diminished fear motive when the greed level was low in the PDG. Moreover, the sensitivity to social motives of 11-year-olds was comparable to the levels of young adults. Together, the present findings confirm that two different social motives underlie the development of cooperation in middle childhood.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2305
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Behavioral Decision Making
Issue number3
Early online date17 Oct 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Decision Sciences(all)
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Applied Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Strategy and Management

User-Defined Keywords

  • children
  • cooperation
  • fear
  • greed
  • social bargaining game
  • social motive


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