Reaping a benefit at the expense of multiple others: How are the losses of others counted?

Meir Barneron, Shoham Choshen-Hillel, Ilan Yaniv*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


We investigate individual decisions that produce gains for oneself, while imposing losses on a group of others. We theorize, based on the notion of empathy, that decision-makers consider the magnitude of the pain or loss they inflict on an individual in the group, but are largely insensitive to the number of individuals in the group who suffer losses. Studies involving personal choices or judgments of others’ choices largely confirmed these predictions. They also revealed a dispersion effect, whereby participants made more selfish choices, and judged others’ selfish choices more lightly, when the social losses were dispersed more thinly across a group. It appears that decision-makers’ empathy for others who suffer losses is not readily adjusted to the number of people affected or to the aggregated losses. It also appears that empathy mediates judgments of selfish behavior. The findings are related to theories of empathy, and decisions under conflicts of interest.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)136-146
Number of pages11
JournalOrganizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
StatePublished - May 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Inc.


  • Conflict of interest
  • Decision ethics
  • Empathy
  • Judgment and decision making
  • Selfish vs prosocial behavior
  • Social preference


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