Altruism, fast and slow? Evidence from a meta-analysis and a new experiment

Hanna Fromell, Daniele Nosenzo, Trudy Owens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Can we use the lens of dual-system theories to explain altruistic behavior? In recent years this question has attracted the interest of both economists and psychologists. We contribute to this emerging literature by reporting the results of a meta-study of the literature and a new experiment. Our meta-study is based on 22 experimental studies conducted with more than 12,000 subjects. We show that the overall effect of manipulating cognitive resources to promote the “intuitive” system at the expense of the “deliberative” system is very close to zero. One reason for this null result could be that promoting intuition has heterogeneous effects on altruism across different subgroups of subjects or contexts. Another reason could be that there simply is no real effect and that previously reported single results are false positives. We explore the role of heterogeneity both by performing a mediator analysis of the meta-analytic effect and by conducting a new experiment designed to circumvent the issue of potential heterogeneity in the direction of the effect of promoting intuition. In both cases, we find little evidence that heterogeneity explains the absence of an overall effect of intuition on altruism. Taken together, our results offer little support for dual-system theories of altruistic behavior.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)979-1001
Number of pages23
JournalExperimental Economics
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 25 Feb 2020


  • Altruism
  • giving
  • Dictator game
  • Dual-system model
  • Intuition
  • Deliberation
  • Self-control
  • Willpower
  • Depletion
  • Stroop task

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