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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Robin Hood lives!
People taking part in a game designed to explore egalitarian impulses in human nature consistently robbed from players assigned the most money while giving money to those with the least, scientists said on Wednesday.
James Fowler, a University of California at San Diego political scientist, and his fellow researchers detected what they saw as a "Robin Hood impulse" in people who took part in the experiment, described in the journal Nature.
"That's the classic story we all know, where someone's taking from the rich and giving to the poor, which is exactly what we're seeing in this experiment," Fowler said in a reference to the medieval English folk legend.
"In essence, what we found is that our taste for equality is one of the important reasons why we cooperate with each other, much more so than, say, other species of primates," Fowler said in a telephone interview.
The experiment was carried out last year using 120 paid student volunteers at a computer lab on the campus of the University of California at Davis.
The volunteers sat at computer terminals, and a computer would assign them into groups of four. Once placed into a group, each person was assigned an amount of money and was told how much money the other three members were given.
The players then had the chance to spend some of their own money in order to increase or decrease the amount the others possessed, but their actions provided no financial gain for themselves.
They played the game five times, but never with anyone from a previous group. This was to eliminate the possibility of players trying to establish a reputation for themselves or taking revenge on others who might have taken money from them.
About 70 percent of participants at some point reduced or added to another person's money, most often by taking from the richest players or by donating to the poorest players, the study found.
These actions had the collective effect of equalizing income among the players -- with participants spending their own money to achieve the goal.
The researchers said even players whose own loot had been pilfered in previous rounds were willing to take steps to redistribute the money in an egalitarian manner.
Fowler acknowledged the experiment might yield different results if conducted in another country or somewhere other than a U.S. college campus, but suggested a certain universal egalitarian yearning might be seen.
"I think in general we would find a preference for equality, but there may be significant variations between societies. And so it's certainly a possibility that our desire for equality is in part shaped by our upbringing," Fowler said.