Alcohol unleashes homo economicus by inhibiting cooperation
Human behavior lies somewhere between purely self-interested homo economicus and socially-motivated homo reciprocans. The factors that cause people to choose self-interest over costly cooperation can provide insights into human nature and are essential when designing institutions and policies that are meant to influence behavior. Alcohol consumption can shed light on the inflection point between selfish and selfless because it is commonly consumed and has global effects on the brain. The present study administered alcohol or placebo (N = 128), titrated to sex and weight, to examine its effect on cooperation in a standard task in experimental economics, the public goods game (PGG). Alcohol, compared to placebo, doubled the number of free-riders who contributed nothing to the public good and reduced average PGG contributions by 32% (p = .005). This generated 64% higher average profits in the PGG for those who consumed alcohol. The degree of intoxication, measured by blood alcohol concentration, linearly reduced PGG contributions (r = -0.18, p = .05). The reduction in cooperation was traced to a deterioration in mood and an increase in physiologic stress as measured by adrenocorticotropic hormone. Our findings indicate that moderate alcohol consumption inhibits the motivation to cooperate and that homo economicus is stressed and unhappy.