What price to protect another?

People choose not to harm others even when it costs them money, a new study shows.
17 November 2014


Are people selfish or selfless? We would all like to think that we are good people, but would we really help others at a cost to ourselves? A surprising new study in the journal PNAS says "yes".

In a British lab, Dr Molly Crockett asked people if they would like to receive painful electric shocks in exchange for money. She discovered that people would choose to shock themselves for cash. But, if given the option, people would not shock another person - even though they did not know them - to receive the same money. Surprisingly, they would surrender the money to avoid harming someone else. hands

Why would people behave in such a selfless way? In the experiment, all decisions were made in secret, so volunteers weren't choosing to help others to save face. Regardless, guilt may still have played a role in the decision to not harm others, according to Crockett.

"On a personal level these results are intuitive in that most people find the prospect of causing harm to another person really aversive and they would feel really guilty if they did so," she explains. 

"Given that behaving nicely towards others is such an important aspect of being successful in a social interaction, I think it makes sense that we would possess emotions that drive us towards pro-social behaviour." 

Though the results sound intuitive, a lot of previous work on altruism has shown that we are a selfish species. In experiments where people are asked to share their money, their decisions are almost always self-serving, to keep all the money to themselves. So why did the people in this study choose to shock other people at a cost to themselves? Crockett points to the setting of the other experiments, where people were only indirectly harming others by omission. 

"There's a lot of evidence that people construe harmful actions as worse than harmful omissions. In the setting where we did our experiments, [they were] actually causing harm. I think that could potentially explain the difference." 

The results imply that guilt and empathy play a huge role in determining when we help others, so what happens when humans have brain conditions that prevent normal emotions like guilt and empathy? Crockett's team profiled mild psychopathic traits in the same healthy volunteers to see if people with more psychopathic personalities made different choices than other volunteers.

"What we found is that people who score higher on these psychopathic traits are less averse to harming, both towards others but also towards themselves. We are hopeful that we can combine these methods with neurobiological studies to better understand what in the brain is going awry in these disorders." 

In the end, this is just the start of Crockett's work, and she has high hopes for the future. 

"What we're excited about is the prospect of developing a lab model of altruism. Hopefully we can use this information to encourage more altruism both on an interpersonal level, but also on a more global scale."

Listen to the full interview with Dr Molly Crockett


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