Exploiting a cognitive bias promotes cooperation in social dilemma experiments

Zhen Wang, Marko Jusup, Lei Shi, Joung Hun Lee, Yoh Iwasa, Stefano Boccaletti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

169 Citations (Scopus)


The decoy effect is a cognitive bias documented in behavioural economics by which the presence of a third, (partly) inferior choice causes a significant shift in people’s preference for other items. Here, we performed an experiment with human volunteers who played a variant of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma game in which the standard options of “cooperate” and “defect” are supplemented with a new, decoy option, “reward”. We show that although volunteers rarely chose the decoy option, its availability sparks a significant increase in overall cooperativeness and improves the likelihood of success for cooperative individuals in this game. The presence of the decoy increased willingness of volunteers to cooperate in the first step of each game, leading to subsequent propagation of such willingness by (noisy) tit-for-tat. Our study thus points to decoys as a means to elicit voluntary prosocial action across a spectrum of collective endeavours.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2954
JournalNature communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Physics and Astronomy(all)


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