In many contexts (family, colleagues, etc), say there is a box of donuts for people to take (or any kind of treat or snack). A lot of the times we can observe that there will be only one left and people just avoid taking the last one.

Is there a psychological theory/reasoning behind this?

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like a job for our in-house expert on Evolutionary Game Theory. $\endgroup$ – Chuck Sherrington Sep 12 '14 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ Well, I don't take it, because I want to appear self-controlled and considerate. The person to eat the last donut feels voracious, even avaricious, to me. I always look at that person with distaste and distrust. I suspect others feel the same. $\endgroup$ – user3116 Sep 12 '14 at 11:55
  • $\begingroup$ Also, I suspect that etiquette requires that you eat only as much as the others eat. With the last donut, you would be the only person to eat, which is both impolite, uncivilized and showing a lack of respect for those higher in hierarchy. $\endgroup$ – user3116 Sep 12 '14 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ People might look at me but I do not mind taking the last one $\endgroup$ – user6726 Sep 13 '14 at 7:28
  • $\begingroup$ If I don't take it, it's because someone else might be more hungry and in need of that last donut... $\endgroup$ – user1073075 Sep 3 '15 at 9:57

What is interesting about this phenomenon is that it runs counter to the scarcity principle. Countless research has shown that the more scarce a commodity is, the more desirable it becomes. This is often capitalized on in marketing ("limited edition" and so on). Thus, the last donut should actually be even more attractive than one of many donuts. So something additional must be happening here.

Daniel Effron and Dale Miller did a series of experiments on this question. Their data is very nice because it shows that both things happen at the same time. The less supply or the more demand for a commodity (they used stuff like chocolate or the opportunity to watch a funny video), the more people wanted to have it. At the same time, they were slower or less likely to take it. The latter tendency increased with the number of group members. Effron and Miller show that this is related to a reduced feeling of entitlement--they call it "diffusion of entitlement". So we want the last piece of chocolate more, but don't think we are entitled to it.

So what's the difference to the effects of scarcity in consumer situations ("black friday")? Effron and Miller discuss that it might be equality norms that are more important when we are in small groups. In contrast, in consumer contexts it might be more a norm of first come first served. It might be a matter of anonymity as well I guess. Whatever it may be, this data adds to research showing that often we are less selfish and care more for the outcome of others than a standard economics approach (homo oeconomicus) would suggest.


Effron, Daniel and Dale T. Miller. 2011. Diffusion of entitlement: An inhibitory effect of scarcity on consumption. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 47: 378-383.

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This is a cultural/situational phenomenon. I know that in my parents' generation (which grew up with poverty), it is common courtesy to never take the last piece of cake/whatever. The host always has to make sure there's plenty, because 1 piece left means that people are still hungry. Nowadays most people (in my culture and generation) are not so hesitant.

My mother has told me about this, and said that is was some kind of social taboo to take the last piece. I believe it's about not being perceived as greedy or desperate, and rather show altruism through sacrifice and sharing. The more sought-after an object is, the more valuable it will be. The poorer people are, the more valuable all kinds of food, cake etc will be. The higher the value of an object, the more egocentric you have to be to claim it for yourself without sharing. Thus people leave the last bit to avoid being seen as greedy or desperate, as greedy people will be seen as a burden in a poor society. Looking desperate makes you look like you can't take care of yourself.

In my own culture and generation, food is plenty everywhere, the perceived value is low, and you usually won't be seen as greedy if you take the last piece. If you are eating with friends and family, you might still chose to stay off the last piece, because "maybe someone wants it more than me". It's about sharing with those that you care for.

In evolutionary pscyhology, this makes good sense. Science has already shown that people with altruistic genes and behavior are perceived as more attractive (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081014134027.htm), and our ancestors had a better chance surviving if they cooperated instead of competing for resources.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree with the culture thing - I heard the very same thing in the context of Chinese culture, where it's apparently rude to take the last of anything. The "guests are still hungry" statement makes this tradition a lot clearer - if they werent hungry, there would be more than 1 left. $\endgroup$ – Alex Stone Mar 18 '15 at 20:34

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