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. 2017 Nov;81(11):1301-1308.
doi: 10.21815/JDE.017.089.

Observed Altruism in Dental Students: An Experiment Using the Ultimatum Game


Observed Altruism in Dental Students: An Experiment Using the Ultimatum Game

Parker A S Crutchfield et al. J Dent Educ. .


The conventional wisdom in dental and medical education is that dental and medical students experience "ethical erosion" over the duration of dental and medical school. There is some evidence for this claim, but in the case of dental education the evidence consists entirely of survey research, which does not measure behavior. The aim of this study was to measure the altruistic behavior of dental students in order to fill the significant gap in knowledge of how students are disposed to behave, rather than how they are disposed to think. To test the altruistic behavior of dental students, the authors conducted a field experiment using the Ultimatum Game, a two-player game used in economics to observe social behavior. In the game, the "proposer" is given a pot of resources, typically money, to split with the "responder." The proposer proposes a split of the pot to the responder. If the responder accepts the proposed split, both participants keep the amounts offered. If the proposal is rejected, then neither participant receives anything. In this study, the students played the proposer, and the responder was a fictional individual although the students believed they were playing the computerized game with a real person. In fall 2015, dental students from each of the four years at one university played the game. All 160 students were invited to participate, and 136 did so, for a response rate of 85%. The results showed that the students exhibited greater levels of altruism than the general population typically does. The students' altruism was at its highest in year four and was associated with the socioeconomic status of responder. This result raises the possibility that if a decreasing ability to behave altruistically is observed during dental school, it may not be due to a general disposition of students, but rather some factor specific to the educational environment.

Keywords: altruism; attitude of health personnel; attitudes; dental education; dentist-patient relations; ethical issues; professional ethics; social responsibility.

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