Representational Altruism: The Wary Cooperator as Authoritative Decision Maker


  • The author would like to thank the anonymous referees and acknowledge the invaluable input and assistance of John Hibbing and Christopher Larimer.

Kevin B. Smith is professor of political science, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE 68588 (


What drives policymakers to put the interests of others above their own? If human nature is inherently selfish, it makes sense to institutionalize incentives that counter decision makers' temptations to use their positions to benefit themselves over others. A growing literature rooted in evolutionary theories of human behavior, however, suggests that humans, under certain circumstances, have inherent predispositions towards “representational altruism,” i.e., to make an authoritative decision to benefit another at one's own expense. Drawing on Hibbing and Alford's conception of the wary cooperator, a theoretical case is made for such behavioral expectations, which are confirmed in a series of original laboratory experiments.