If you could confront the pickpocket who ripped you off in the subway, would you simply demand your wallet back, or would you seek vengeance? Your decision to punish the thief might hinge on whether the thief ended up richer than you, a new study suggests.

According to most economic theories, self-interest is the prime motivator in human behavior. However, studies show that people consistently sacrifice their own welfare to punish cheats. For example, in a classic economic experiment called the "ultimatum game," one person holds a certain number of dollars and can offer as many as she likes to a second player. If the second player rejects the offer, the first player loses everything. Rather than accepting any offer, the second player will consistently reject low offers, preferring to receive nothing than to allow her rival to retain the larger sum.

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