ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2014, Vol. 46 ›› Issue (6): 841-851.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2014.00841

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Can Good People Commit Evil Acts? Evidence of Ego-depletion on Individuals’ Altruistic Behavior

REN Jun;LI Ruixue;ZHAN Jun;LIU Di;LIN Man;PENG Nianqiang   

  1. (1 Lab of Mental Health, Zhejiang Normal University, Jinhua 321004, China) (2 College of Education, Capital Normal University, Beijing 100048, China) (3Key Lab of Mental Health, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China)
  • Received:2013-07-03 Published:2014-06-30 Online:2014-06-30
  • Contact: REN Jun;ZHAN Jun


Why do good people commit evil acts?The present study tests the evidence of ego-deletion on individuals’ altruistic behavior. Self-regulation is particularly useful for overcoming socially undesirable impulses so as to behave in ways (such as sharing to others) that are consistent with social and personal ideals. In this article, we suggest that people may overcome a natural impulse toward selfishness and self-interest when sharing with others, and, to overcome this impulse may require advanced psychological processes, such as self-control. According to the Theory of Limited Self-control Resource, the resource for self-control is limited. When self-control resource is over consumed, ego-depletion will be initiated, which can adversely affect the individuals’ performance in the self-regulation. Our hypothesis, therefore, is that sharing can depend on self-regulation, which refers to the capacity to alter the self and its responses to bring them in line with various standards, such as goals and ideals. Two experiments were used to examine the impact of ego-depletion on individuals’ decision making in a dictator game, and to observe what would happen to ego-depleted people if they were induced by fairness or selfishness induction. In Experiment 1, subjects were manipulated into ego-depletion or non-ego-depletion and were tested how abundant or deficient self-control resources would influence their altruistic behavior. Experiment 2 was conducted to evaluate the subjects’ reaction to fairness or selfishness cognition priming when they were exhausted. In addition, all the participants had the power to allocate scarce resources between themselves and others in the dictator game, which measured the altruistic level of allocators. Participants showed less altruistic behavior when they were ego-depleted than when they were not ego-depleted. This confirmed the explanatory power of Self-control Theory where controlled processes impact the subjects’ altruistic tendency. On the other hand, priming the cognition of social norms such as fairness might remit the after-effect of ego-depletion on subjects’ altruistic behavior, while the subjects who were induced by selfishness did not display difference contrast to subjects of non-cognitive priming. The implications of the findings for everyday interpersonal decisions were considered. The results from these two experiments: 1) suggested that ego-depletion made individuals more likely to act selfishly if the individuals did not have the executive resources to identify moral issues in the situation and 2) tested that priming the cognition of social norms such as fairness might remit the after-effect of ego-depletion on subjects’ altruistic behavior. Moreover, the fairness induction might not only save the self-control resources of individuals to balance gain and loss but also propel individuals to be concerned with external social fairness norms. It is worth noting that the remission of fairness priming about ego-depletion effect on altruistic behavior was limited. Remission maintained the individuals’ decision-making as a fair type of altruistic behavior. Future research on altruistic behavior using the dictator task should evaluate the effects of personal variables.

Key words: altruistic behavior, Theory of Limited Self-control Resource, self-control resource, ego-depletion