Well, that's a relief: humans aren't as self-serving as I thought. A study published in Nature this week suggests that when we make quick decisions, our instinct is to be generous, but if we're given time to reflect, we act more selfishly.
Picture by Mike Baird
The study by US and UK researchers used a series of experimental games to see whether people were more likely to cooperate. In one experiment, 212 people were given $0.40 on Amazon Mechanical Turk, divided into teams of four and asked to choose how much to give to a common pool. Money given to the pool was doubled and then split amongst all four participants, and the time taken to make those decisions were tracked.
Across all the experiments, people tended to make more contributions to others when choosing quickly, but were less cooperative when taking time to think:
We find that across a range of experimental designs, subjects who reach their decisions more quickly are more cooperative. Furthermore, forcing subjects to decide quickly increases contributions, whereas instructing them to reflect and forcing them to decide slowly decreases contributions. Finally, an induction that primes subjects to trust their intuitions increases contributions compared with an induction that promotes greater reflection.
It's not clear the extent to which those processes are shaped by cultural factors, but it's an interesting finding.