Somewhat recently, a new trend on TikTok has arisen. Someone will approach another person on the street with an offer (a glass of milk, a dollar, a watermelon) and will pose a question to this person: “Do you want it, or do you want to double it and give it to the next person?” A trend emerges within these interactions: rarely, if ever, does the first person in the doubling chain accept the offer. The vast majority of participants choose to double the offer, sending the doubled offer to a stranger, until eventually the doubling chain is broken by someone who accepts the offer. The “double it and give it to the next person” trend unknowingly plays off of existing behavioral economic experiments which show altruism in a public setting, analyzing the threshold at which people will break the doubling chain and accept the offer for themselves.
For my analysis, I am specifically looking at TikTok videos where money is being offered. If a glass of milk is being offered, someone may pass it along simply because they do not like milk (would not accept any quantity of milk) and not because they want the next person to get more milk. I will also be exploring three main aspects of the experiment: the social perception of the person who accepts the offer, the necessary threshold to accept the offer and what would occur if communication could be opened between Person A and Person B. (Note that Person A refers to the person asked whether they should accept or double, and Person B refers to the next person in the chain who receives Person A’s doubled offer.)
Nobody wants to appear fully selfish. Because the experiment is performed publicly and participants likely know that their responses will be posted publicly to the internet, participants may act differently than in private. If people care about how they are perceived socially, it may look socially unacceptable to accept the offer so “early on” in the experiment. “Early on” is indicated by the amount of money offered to a participant. If the participant is knowledgeable about the TikTok trend, the participant will likely know that being offered $1 or $6 indicates that the doubling chain is at the beginning and to accept the money so early would ruin the initial doubling chain.
Therefore, it may also look socially unacceptable to accept a low amount ($1, $5), knowing that the amount of money could grow substantially and benefit a future participant. Participants then have a socially beneficial reason to behave altruistically, making a sacrifice to benefit a stranger without expecting a reward in return. Yet, participants cannot be fully altruistic if they have an ulterior motive to be perceived as altruistic. Participants make a sacrifice (double the offer for the next person) and expect a non-monetary reward in return (positive social perception, boost to ego for doing the “right” action, feeling good for helping someone else, etc.). The discrepancy indicates that acting altruistically looks good socially, potentially prompting participants to act altruistically not because they care about the greater good but because they want to be perceived as caring about the greater good.
If this experiment was to be run privately, where decisions were not publicized, the offer may be accepted sooner. The public pressure to act “correctly” would be removed as a variable, and the experiment would solely focus on altruism in private, where one’s altruistic actions would not be publicly recognized. Without a microphone in a participant’s face and a camera a few steps away, the participant may be more inclined to act selfishly and take the money, regardless of dollar amount. Having any amount of money, even a small amount, is better than having $0. In placing the experiment in a private setting, the social punishment associated with accepting the offer is removed.
At a certain point, a participant will value the amount of money being offered over the decision to act altruistically. This occurs when a participant accepts the offer and does not double it for the next person, breaking the altruistic doubling chain. We rarely see instances of participants accepting smaller money amounts, such as $1, $5, $12, or $20. However, at a certain point in the experiment, the offer is always accepted, typically between the range of $50 to $200. (For logic as to why such a large range exists, refer to the limitations section at the end of the piece.) The threshold therefore indicates the moment for a participant where receiving $X is more valuable than being perceived as altruistic in the public eye.
Further, if a participant knows which part of the chain they are in (think of those events where you can pay it forward at a coffee shop and know how many customers have participated before you), they may be less likely to break the chain. A person would not want to be the one who “ruins” the doubling chain as the 99th person in the chain. Modifying the experiment in this manner could further explore how social pressures to act “correctly” has an impact on altruism. In this experiment variant, not only does the general social pressure to act “correctly” exist but also with an added extra pressure not to be “that” person who ruins and breaks the chain.
Another variable that impacts the experiment is the inability for Person A to communicate with Person B. Person A knows nothing about Person B and therefore does not know who will benefit more from accepting the offer. Notably, some videos on TikTok have picked up on this, opting to give Person B a third option: to “reduce it by half and return it to the previous person.” (Person A, importantly, is also aware of the existence of this third option, therefore aware of how Person B can communicate with Person A.) If Person B returns the offer to Person A, Person B communicates that the offer is not needed and that Person A can accept the offer without being seen as selfish. If Person A’s decision to accept or double the offer is reliant upon how much Person B would value the offer, adding this method of communication could increase the amount of information available to participants, allowing them to make a more informed decision.
There may be a relationship between this altruistic threshold and charity donations, where an individual would be willing to donate to charity up until $X. After $X is reached, let us say at $X + $1, the individual would rather hold onto the money instead of donating it to a charity (to strangers). Importantly in this specific condition, the charity is unknown to the participant. There is no knowledge of who the doubled money is going to, and therefore, the “double it” trend speaks more to donating to an unknown charity than a well-researched charity. A variant of the experiment could be run where Person A is shown Person B before making the decision to keep or to double the money. By knowing where the doubled money will go, Person A’s decision may change.
The altruistic threshold is specific to the individual. To counteract this, many doubling chains could be initiated, noting the dollar value when the chain is broken. Then, the final values could be averaged together to estimate an altruistic threshold for a population.
Limitations: TikTok videos are heavily edited. TikTok creators have an incentive to show a longer doubling chain for more video content. If the first person accepts the offer, the TikTok created may not show it in the final video. Also, the creator may show a selection bias in choosing which person on the street to offer the incentive. There is also a realistic probability that the majority of these videos are staged, and the people in the video are friends with the TikTok creator. Finally, each TikTok creator starts the experiment with a different amount of money. In some videos, participant 1 is offered $1 to start the chain, and in other videos, $10, $20, or even $100. If the chain begins with a higher amount of money, the chain may be broken sooner, as the threshold to stop behaving altruistically is reached sooner. This also leads to a wide range of the final dollar amount of the accepted offer, not necessarily because there is such a large range of altruistic thresholds but because a chain that starts at $1 may never make it to $200, whereas a chain that starts at $100 only needs one participant to double the offer before $200 is reached as an offer. It is unclear whether the results shown in the TikTok videos could be replicated in real life, or if the TikTok videos edit the raw content in such a way that obscures all of the data points from being published in the video or manipulates participants in such a way to compel them to continue doubling the money, even if the participants want to accept it.
In conclusion, the “double it and give it to the next person” trend, though imperfect, is a behavioral economic experiment in disguise, exploring whether people will act altruistically in a public setting. And if the TikTok videos are taken at face value, people are altruistic (for varying reasons) only up until a certain threshold. After which point, people just want the money (or 10 watermelons or 16 corn dogs) for themselves.