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Desperation and inequality increase stealing: evidence from experimental microsocieties

Lookup NU author(s): Eleanor Holton, Professor Daniel Nettle



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© 2023 The Authors. 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.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Radkani S, Holton E, De Courson B, Saxe R, Nettle D

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Royal Society Open Science

Year: 2023

Volume: 10

Issue: 7

Online publication date: 19/07/2023

Acceptance date: 27/06/2023

Date deposited: 05/09/2023

ISSN (electronic): 2054-5703

Publisher: Royal Society Publishing


DOI: 10.1098/rsos.221385


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Funder referenceFunder name
EUR FrontCog
Guggenheim Foundation
MathWorks Fellowship
Patrick J. McGovern Foundation