Luohan Academy

Event Recap

Larger than Life: An Experiment on Mortality Salience, Time Preference and Prosocial Behavior

Speakers : Te Bao

Te Bao (Nanyang Technological University)
Te Bao is an Associate Professor of Economics at the School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He obtained his Ph.D in Economics in 2012 from CeNDEF, University of Amsterdam. His research interest includes experimental economics, behavioral finance and real estate economics. His works are published in Economic Journal, European Economic Review, Experimental Economics, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization and Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control.


On 15th December 2021, Professor Te Bao from Nanyang Technological University joined us in a Luohan Academy Webinar to discuss the relationship between mortality salience, time preference, and prosocial behavior by setting up a laboratory experiment, where mortality salience is introduced through priming student subjects with the remaining life expectancy at their current age. The work of Professor Bao and his co-authors is aimed to understand how mortality salience influences people’s time preference and prosocial behavior.

Professor Bao draws his intuition from many quotes that start with “life is short”. It is commonly concerned whether the awareness of death would make us better people. Higher mortality salience may lead to a higher time discount rate (Fisher, 1930). It may lead to less saving (Becker and Murphy, 1988), less wealth (Epper, 2020), and fewer children (Wrede, 2011), but no one has looked for evidence that it is the case. In the meantime, psychologists have proposed that mortality salience makes people behave in a prosocial manner such as donating more money to charities (Jonas et al., 2003), offering more money in dictator games and ultimatum games (Jonas et al., 2002; Zaleskiewicz et al., 2015), to suppress anxiety about thoughts of death. However, is there a linkage between mortality salience, time preference and prosocial behavior

In order to answer this question, Professor Bao and his co-authors set up an experiment, in which they introduce mortality salience in a three-part laboratory experiment. In the first priming part, subjects in the treatment group were asked to perform several calculation tasks on their life expectancy at a given age, and with the implicit notation that life was limited, while those in the control group performed similar tasks without any implicit notation in relation to death. 

The second part includes two sessions. In the first session regarding eliciting time preference, subjects’ time preference was elicited using 10 questions for temporal discounting. In the second session regarding social preference, a dictator game (Andreoni and Miller, 2002) was implemented, where each subject was told that they had been appointed to the role of a proposer (Player 1) who decided the allocation of a certain amount of money between themselves and another recipient (Player 2). The amount Player 2 received will be multiplied by a factor R, which is interpreted as the price of giving for Player 1.

In the third part, a questionnaire was used to survey different demographic information like age, gender, stipend, major (Frank et al., 1993; Cappelen et al., 2015), number of friends (Ben Ner et al., 2004), health status (Chao et al., 2009), experience of death (Liu and Aaker, 2007) and many other variables that may affect time preference or social preference based on the existing literature.

They find that mortality salience makes subjects think bigger, and behave more like maximizers of utilitarian welfare function. In the dictator game, when the price of giving is relatively high, the proportion of giving in the treatment group is smaller than that in the control group. Conversely, when the price of giving is relatively low, the proportion of giving in the treatment group is larger than that in the control group. They relate this finding to the time preference of the subjects. Priming increases the discount factor for the treatment group, which makes them more likely to give if giving is indeed socially optimal. 

Throughout Professor Bao’s presentation, other participants including Luohan Academy economists Yingju Ma, Xijie Gao, Sangwoo Choi etc. discussed different sections of his research. The Q&A session was concluded by comments from the moderator of Luohan Academy.

If you would like to give a presentation in a future webinar, please contact our Economist Dr. Xijie Gao ( ​

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