A new study shows that people are typically willing to sacrifice twice as much money to spare a stranger from pain, compared to the amount they would pay to spare themselves, even when their decision is anonymous.
The study, conducted by researchers from University College London (UCL) and Oxford University, is the first to investigate how much pain people are willing to inflict on themselves or strangers (anonymously) in exchange for money.
The results reveal a surprisingly optimistic look into human nature, in stark contrast with earlier studies suggesting that people fundamentally care about their own interests over those of other people.
The research provides insight into clinical disorders characterized by a lack of empathy, such as psychopathy. The findings showed that people with more psychopathic traits were more likely to harm both others and themselves, suggesting antisocial behavior could stem from a general insensitivity to pain.
For the study, researchers assigned 160 participants into anonymous partnerships, with one being the “decider” and the other being the “receiver.”
All participants were given mildly painful electric shocks matched to their pain threshold so that the intensity was not intolerable. Deciders were explicitly told that shocks to receivers would be at the receiver’s own pain threshold.
For each trial, deciders had to choose between different amounts of money for different numbers of shocks, up to a maximum 20 shocks and £20 (about $31) per trial. For example, they might be offered a choice of seven shocks for £10 or 10 shocks for £15. Half of the decisions related to shocks for themselves and half to shocks for the receiver, but in all cases the deciders would get the money.
One of the final trials involved having the decider or receiver receive the shocks with the decider receiving the profits. As such, the deciders’ decisions had real consequences. Deciders knew that their choices would be kept secret so that fear of judgment or retaliation would not sway the results.
The findings revealed that participants would sacrifice an average of 20p per shock to prevent shocks to themselves and 40p per shock to prevent shocks to others. For example, they would pay on average £8 to prevent 20 shocks to others but only £4 to spare themselves 20 shocks.
At the end of the study, participants could donate a portion of their winnings to charity. Although the people in this study were highly altruistic in terms of sparing others from pain, they only donated an average 20 percent of their winnings to charity, consistent with previous research.
“These results contradict not just classical assumptions of human self-interest, but also more modern views of altruism,” said lead author Molly Crockett, Ph.D., who conducted the study at UCL and is now at Oxford University.
“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.
“We also timed volunteers’ decisions, and found that they hesitated longer when the decision involved harming another person. The most altruistic subjects in our study took the longest to decide for others, suggesting that they may have been making moral calculations. The more selfish subjects decided the fate of others more quickly, which may indicate a lack of thought about moral responsibility.
“These findings suggest that the speed of people’s decisions, as well as decisions themselves, can reveal how moral people are. This logic is reflected in our everyday language — we describe morally praiseworthy people as ‘thoughtful’ and ‘considerate,’ whereas more selfish people are described as ‘thoughtless’ and ‘inconsiderate’.
“Although people in this study were highly altruistic in terms of sparing others from pain, they were much more selfish when given the chance to donate money to charity. Exchanging money seems to bring out the worst in people who might otherwise selflessly help others avoid suffering, if given the opportunity,” said Crockett.
The research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.