Saturday, 29 November 2014

Electric shock - we'd rather hurt ourselves than others

If you had the choice between hurting yourself or someone else in exchange for money, how altruistic do you think you’d be? In one infamous experiment, people were quite willing to deliver painful shocks to anonymous victims when asked by a scientist. But a new study that forced people into the dilemma of choosing between pain and profit finds that participants cared more about other people’s well-being than their own. It is hailed as the first hard evidence of altruism for the young field of behavioral economics.

Human behavior toward others is hard to predict. On the one hand, we stand out in the animal world for our altruism, often making significant sacrifices to help out a stranger in need. And all but the most antisocial people experience psychological distress at witnessing, let alone causing, pain in others. Yet study after study in the field of behavioral economics has demonstrated that we tend to value our own needs and desires above those of others. For example, researchers have found that just thinking about money makes people behave more selfishly.

To try to reconcile the angels and devils of our nature, a team led by Molly Crockett, a psychologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, combined the classic psychological and economics tools for probing altruism: pain and money. Everyone has their own pain threshold, so the first task was a pain calibration. Researchers administered electric shocks with electrodes attached to the wrists of 160 subjects, starting at an almost imperceptible level and amping up until the subject described the pain as intolerable. (For most people, that threshold for pain is similar to holding your wrist under a stream of 50°C water.)

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