The Economy of Readers’ Feelings: The Ultimatum Game

In a LCE lecture on the eighteenth-century novel, we asked students to respond to questions about economic 'fairness' – also known as 'The Ultimatum Game'. Can their answers tell us something about readers' emotional investment in literary characters?

Poetic justice: The Ultimatum game

Happy endings are profoundly satisfying. Why do we like it when good characters get rewarded, and when evil schemers are punished at the end of a narrative? It might have something to do with an intuitive understanding of who deserves what.

The so-called Ultimatum Game can tell us more about poetic justice and readers’ feelings. We asked students:

I have NOK 1000 to share. I offer you NOK 500 and keep NOK 500 to myself. Do you accept?

Cake diagram showing that out of 34 students, 29 responded 'yes' and 5 answered 'no'.
Illustration: 29 out of 34 participants answered that they would accept this offer. Only four students did not count it as fair to split the 1000 NOK evenly.

Overall, the majority of students were quite agreed about what response felt right here; my offer seemed fair and reasonable. Then, we made a different proposal:

I still have NOK 1000 to share. Now, I offer you NOK 100 and keep NOK 900 to myself. If you refuse, we both leave empty-handed. Do you accept?

Cake diagram showing that out of 34 students, 22 responded 'yes' and 14 answered 'no'.
Illustration: 14 students would not accept my new offer. This is an increase from my first proposal of an even split. 

22 out of 34 participants said they would still accept the offer. However, 14 students said they would refuse – even if it meant they got nothing at all. With their refusal, they also made sure that I didn’t get anything. And that feeling of satisfaction can be stronger than the regret over losing 100 NOK. Compared to the previous scenario where the money was split evenly between us, fewer students accepted the new proposal. Overall, it is an even distribution that counts as “fair”.

Illustration of survey: A graph showing that an even distribution of 500 NOk each has the highest median score by way of fairness.
Illustration: Students were asked to rate four distribution scenarios: strongly agree is 1, strongly disagree is 5. The numbers on the graphs are the median values, and the waves indicate the distribution. The green line represents an even split of 500 NOK each. This scenario had the highest score in terms of fairness.

Strong Reciprocity

The principle underlying this phenomenon is called “strong reciprocity”. There appears to be a commitment to fair distribution that makes you feel good when you punish someone who does not follow that principle. When authors in a literary narrative do that for us, then readers feel a similarly kind of satisfaction. And when good characters are rewarded, then we feel that this is right, too.

Literature, however, complicates matters. Indeed, Richardson’s contemporaries Henry Fielding and Eliza Haywood were doubtful about whether Pamela is actually virtuous. In Fielding’s Shamela, the protagonist is not actually virtuous, and she therefore gets caught in bed with the parson and divorced. But perhaps Fielding is too simple here. Haywood’s Anti-Pamela questions the entire set-up of reward through marriage and punishment through divorce. We asked students in the lecture: 

Do you think Richardson's Pamela deserves her happy ending?

They were presented with three options:

  • I'm not sure that this marriage is a happy ending.

  • Yes, she is virtuous and deserves to marry well. 
  • No, she has probably planned to marry Mr B from the start.
Diagram showing that 81% of students were not sure if Pamela deserved a happy ending, 19% answered that she did, while 0% answered no.
Illustration: 81% of our students were not sure that Pamela's marriage was a happy ending. 19% considered this a happy ending – significantly less than those who were no longer sure. Nobody responded 'no'.

The majority of our students were not sure if Pamela got her happy ending by marrying well. Many modern readers, and indeed, most students, reconsidered whether there is a a happy ending in Pamela after our discussion of strong reciprocity.

Literature and its Emotional Investments

With literature you revisit immediate feelings of strong reciprocity and it allows you to see where you place your emotional investments as a reader. Pay attention to this when you read novels like Wuthering Heights (where the most attractive characters are not "virtuous") or Crime and Punishment. What are your emotional investments, and how do authors manipulate them through the virtue or vice of their characters?

Contributor: Karin Kukkonen.

Published Mar. 26, 2020 5:50 AM - Last modified Nov. 25, 2020 1:20 PM