November 22, 2014


Behind the scenes of a 'shocking' new study on human altruism (Molly Crockett, 22 November 2014, The Guardian)

A lack of concern for others' suffering lies at the heart of many psychiatric disorders such as psychopathy, so developing precise laboratory measures of empathy and altruism will be important for probing the brain processes that underlie antisocial behavior.

We brought 80 pairs of volunteers in to the lab and led them to different rooms so they couldn't see or talk to each other. They drew lots to determine which would be the "decider", and which the "receiver". The decider then made a series of decisions between different amounts of money and different amounts of moderately painful electric shocks. The decider always received the money, but sometimes the shocks were for the decider, and sometimes the shocks were for the receiver. By observing the deciders' choices we were able to calculate how much money they were willing to sacrifice to prevent shocks to either themselves or to the receiver.

We found that on average, people were willing to sacrifice about twice as much money to prevent another person from being shocked, than to prevent themselves from being shocked. So for example, they would give up £8 to prevent 20 shocks to another person but would only give up £4 to prevent 20 shocks to themselves. These results are surprising because most previous studies of altruism in the lab suggested that people care about themselves far more than others.

Posted by at November 22, 2014 8:23 AM

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