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Shocking altruism? People will pay to reduce others' pain, study says

Are humans selfish or selfless? A new study using electric shocks sheds some light

No pain, no gain. People who gladly underwent electric shocks for cash in an experiment were more willing to sacrifice money to reduce others’ pain than they were to reduce their own.

The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tested the limits of people’s willingness to inflict pain on others for their own benefit -- and reveals human behavior to be, at least in this case, surprisingly altruistic.

Research into ‘prosocial’ behavior – that is, behavior that’s intentionally meant to help others -- leads to different conclusions, depending on the experiment. Studies show that people do put a value on other people’s “monetary outcomes” -- that is, they’re willing to donate money to total strangers -- but they care far less about others' financial gain than they care about their own. Other research indicates that people empathize with others’ pain, but value it no higher than their own. So how altruistic are people, really?

To get at that question, scientists at University College London set up two experiments involving more than 160 participants in anonymous pairs, randomly assigned the ominous-sounding roles of “decider” and receiver.” The decider would get to choose between more money and more electric shocks, or less money and fewer electric shocks — say, seven shocks for 10 British pounds ($15.64), or ten shocks for £15 ($23.46). But even though the decider always got the money, there was a twist: half the time, the decider would get the shocks; the other half, the receiver would get the shocks.

The researchers found that people were “hyperaltruistic” -- that is, the deciders were less likely to harm the receivers for a little more cash than they were to harm themselves. While they were willing to take a few more shocks themselves to earn a higher payoff, they were less likely to raise the number of shocks for those extra bucks if it was the receiver getting zapped instead.

The situation worked in the inverse, too: the deciders were more willing to pay money to decrease the shocks to the receiver than they were to pay money to decrease the shocks to themselves.

Was it simply that the deciders assumed that they were better able to handle the pain than the other person? Perhaps a little – the researchers found that deciders did indeed think they were a little better equipped to handle the shocks – but it didn’t account for the whole difference.

The more "prosocial" deciders also took longer to choose in cases where the extra shocks would hurt the receiver, and not themselves. Those with subclinical psychopathic traits, however, were more likely to inflict harm on others as well as themselves for a bigger payout.

“Those with stronger prosocial preferences may be faster in rewarding contexts but slower in aversive contexts,” the study authors wrote. “This account gels with past studies showing that people who help others quickly are judged more positively than those who hesitate, but people who harm others quickly are judged more negatively than those who hesitate.”

The findings, the scientists say, could potentially be useful in understanding how we navigate the moral and ethical quandaries that come with “the many medical, legal, and political decisions that involve tradeoffs between financial profits and possible human suffering.”

How much of this is learned behavior and how much of it is innate? That’s unclear. And it’s also unclear whether the same pattern would hold if the stakes were higher — more money, more pain. For obvious ethical reasons, there’s a limit to the amount of pain that can be administered in a laboratory setting. 

“Social interactions are fraught with uncertainty because, try as we might, we can never truly know what it is like to occupy someone else’s shoes,” the study authors wrote. “Instead, we must rely on our best estimates of others’ beliefs and preferences to guide social decision making and tread carefully when their fate rests in our hands.”

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