Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making
18 November 2014
A UCL-led experiment on 80 pairs of adults found that people were willing
to sacrifice on average twice as much money to spare a stranger pain than to
spare themselves, despite the decision being secret.
The study, conducted by researchers from UCL Institute of Neurology and Oxford University and funded by the Wellcome Trust, was the first to experimentally compare how much pain people were willing to anonymously inflict on themselves or strangers in exchange for money. The research is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Their findings provide a surprisingly optimistic view of human nature, in
stark contrast with previous economic studies claiming people fundamentally
care about their own interests over those of other people.
The research also provides insight into clinical disorders characterised
by a lack of empathy, such as psychopathy. People with more psychopathic traits
were more likely to harm both others and themselves, suggesting antisocial behaviour
could result from a general insensitivity to harm.
At the end of the study, volunteers could donate a proportion 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% of their
winnings to charity, consistent with past research. This comparatively selfish
behaviour shows that altruism is highly context-dependent.
The researchers also timed volunteers’ decisions, and found that they hesitated longer when the decision involved harming another person. The most altruistic subjects 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.
- Molly J. Crockett, Zeb Kurth-Nelson, Jenifer Z. Siegel, Peter Dayan and Raymond J. Dolan.Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making. PNAS. Available online November 17, 2014. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1408988111.