11/18/2014 03:57 pm ET

How Much Are We Willing To Harm Others For Personal Gain?

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Most of the time, psychology and behavioral economics research paints a grim picture of human motivation as fundamentally selfish and competitive. But one new study seems to suggest we might be a little more altruistic than we thought: Evolution may actually have favored those who learned to share resources and cooperate with others.

Psychologists from University College London and Oxford University designed an experiment to determine how much pain people were willing to inflict on themselves or strangers (anonymously) for money. They found that, in an experimental setting, most people would not choose personal financial gain if doing so required hurting others.

The researchers tested 160 subjects, randomly assigned to 80 pairs, with one participant in each pair assigned to the role of "receiver" and one assigned to the role of "decider." The decider did not know the identity of the receiver, and vice versa. The subjects were each given mildly painful electric shocks, matched to their individual pain thresholds.

Then, the deciders went into a private room and took part in 150-160 trials, in which they chose between receiving different amounts of money for different numbers of shocks. For instance, they could give seven shocks for £10 (roughly $15 US). Half the trials required shocks to themselves, while the other half required shocks to the receiver. After the trials, one of the chosen trial results was implemented, so that the decider or receiver received shocks and the decider received the money. The researchers promised to keep the deciders' choices about the shocks a secret.

People were willing to sacrifice twice as much money to spare a stranger pain than to spare themselves, even though there was no risk of their decision becoming public. The deciders would pay, for example, an average of £8 to prevent 20 shocks to another, but would only pay £4 to spare themselves the same number of shocks. They also required a greater incentive to increase shocks to others than to increase shocks to themselves (50p versus 30p).

"These results contradict not just classical assumptions of human self-interest, but also more modern views of altruism," Oxford neuroscientist Dr. Molly Crockett, the study's lead author, said in a statement. "Recent theories claim people value others' interests to some extent, but never more than their own. We have shown that when it comes to harm, most people put others before themselves. People would rather profit from their own pain than from someone else's."

The findings suggested, however, that altruism is highly dependent on context. At the end of the study, subjects were given the option to donate some of their winnings to charity. Their donations averaged just 20 percent.

The findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.



Gail McMeekin