Friday, 28 November 2014

A shocking result - people are more willing to hurt themselves than others for profit

You wait in a cubicle, electrodes strapped to your body. In a room nearby, a stranger is confronted with a series of decisions. They can choose a smaller cash reward and avoid an electric shock, or a larger sum that comes together with an unpleasant zap. The twist is that in half of the trials, the stranger knows the associated shock punishment is for them, but in the others they know it’s you who will suffer. You glance nervously at the electrodes.

It's a tough spot. Surely you will receive many shocks – after all why wouldn't the deciding stranger opt for more money when they know it poses no personal risk? As a psychology nerd, you grimly recall experiments showing we're more prepared to hurt others financially than ourselves. Then you cast your mind wider and recall more hopefully how empathy research suggests humans are highly motivated to prevent suffering in others. Maybe the stranger won't put you at more risk than they put themselves?

This is the scenario that was explored in research carried out at University College London by Molly Crockett and her colleagues. Across two experiments, the 80 participants who played the role of the decision-makers were in fact more careful with another person's pain than with their own. They were prepared to receive higher shocks for modest extra rewards, but rejected the same deals when the shocks were for another unknown person. Specifically, the participants needed about twice the financial return before they would raise the pain levels for a stranger.

One fact of note is that when a trial involved choosing shocks for another person, the participants took more time over their decision - and the more they slowed down, the more likely they chose the kinder option. This is surprising because previous research on generosity suggests that faster decisions lead to more altruistic actions. The current research complicates this account, suggesting that snap decisions may be more altruistic in positive situations, but less altruistic in negative ones. Essentially, the research calls for us to recognise that being “thoughtful” is also a component of altruism.

The empathy literature explains how witnessing others’ pain affects our own pain networks, so this would imply that we could treat it as seriously as our own. But these findings go further, to something Crockett likens to Adam Smith's notion of “moral sentiment”, where human beings are driven by a principled aversion to benefiting through the suffering of another. By contrast with the selfishness seen in economic trading games, this research shines a light on how the direct physical suffering of others triggers empathic responses that are altogether different from responses to other people's purely financial disadvantage - even though lack of money may result in suffering too. We respond most humanely - most humanly - to human conditions of need: tired eyes, thin limbs, a body in pain.
Crockett, M., Kurth-Nelson, Z., Siegel, J., Dayan, P., & Dolan, R. (2014). Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1408988111

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.


Research Digest said...

pretty poor analysis. As Korean worker, I totally disagree on Rudolf. Korean used to feel unhappy national wide mainly because of huge social and economic pressure. The statistics seem to be low happiness in both now and 10 years ago.
Let's assume Korea government revert the reform and Korean must work in 6 days a week. Absolutely Korean feel much less happy than 10 years ago.
Indonesian people is one of the happiest people, but do you want to be Indonesian? Never because you know Internet, traveling around world, crazy night life, smartphone, etc.
The quality of life of Korean is better than 10 years ago. The reform is absolutely right. The issue is that Korean feel still unhappy. Don't attack the right reform, Rudolf.

Research Digest said...

Hi Dongseong,

There are certainly likely to be work-related factors contributing to happiness, but what Rudolf's study shows us is that the enforcement of reduced hours doesn't have a measurable causal effect - maybe because the reduction is too small to allow significant life changes, maybe because it sweeps up some people who want to maintain high hours to forge ahead, maybe because some people are trying to fit the same work into the hours, and maybe because of a combination of these and other reasons.

It's certainly excellent news that there is an improvement in quality of life for people in Korea. What Rudolf's work does is contribute to the analysis of exactly why that is.


Research Digest said...

I feel that the researchers did not make their case for any findings concerning genuine empathy. By genuine empathy I mean the subjects’ feeling brain emotions of sensing and sharing the emotions of another person.

At no time during the experiment were the subjects’ feeling or lower brains measured, although the experiment was designed to cause sensations of pain and draw conclusions about empathetic feelings.

The lead researcher stated: “We were interested in quantifying how much people care about others, relative to themselves. 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.”

Why did the researchers decide it was preferable to infer these feelings and sensations from actions and reports without confirming them with direct measurements?

We know from other studies that people’s thinking brains are easily capable of generating a proxy for empathy.

At no time during the experiment did the subjects see or hear or touch the person whom they caused pain. I’d say it’s not easy to feel authentic empathy for a disembodied presence.

Informed by studies that found that task performance and beliefs about task responses are solely thinking brain exercises, I’d say that any findings concerning empathy in this study involve inauthentic empathy – the non-feeling, thinking brain exercise, faking-it kind.

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