How Kind People Exploit the Masses

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
6 min readApr 18, 2022
Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

We’re never short of national scandals to talk about. Stories of CEOs quietly harming customers for profit, rich people exploiting poor people, and politicians cheating the masses for personal gain seem to be in the news on a regular basis (on that note, here’s a New York Times piece from Jan 22 quoting my writing on the science of hypocrisy and relating it to Boris Johnson).

The prevalence of all this selfishness might seem a little strange because it’s rare that we meet an outright sociopath in real life. When talking to people on a personal level, they generally appear to be good people trying to live their lives without hurting others.

So it could be that there are many sociopaths living among us who are excellent at hiding their antisocial tendencies. Or it could be that we’re all somewhat sociopathic given the right conditions. A new study finds truth in the latter idea. It turns out that most people will act generously in one-on-one interactions while simultaneously exploiting large groups of people.

Comic from The Immortal Grind

Kind to one, evil to many

Economic games are common in experimental psychology. They usually involve pairing people in one-on-one social interactions, assigning each person a role, and then allowing them to split some cash. Here are a few examples:

  • The Dictator Game: One person in a pair is assigned the role of “dictator” and receives a pot of cash. The dictator decides how much cash to give to the other person, and the other person simply has to take it!
  • The Ultimatum Game: One person in a pair is assigned the role of “proposer” and receives a pot of cash. The proposer decides how much cash to offer the other person, but if the other person rejects the offer, they both get nothing.
  • The Trust Game: One person in a pair is assigned the role of “trustor” and receives a pot of cash. The trustor decides how much money to give to the other person (the “trustee”), and that transferred money is then doubled by researchers. The trustee then decides how much of that doubled money they want to give back to the trustor.

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Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: https://userinsight.substack.com/