We're Naturally Generous Until We Start Thinking

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.

Spontaneous giving and calculated greed [Nature]


    Mitt Romney needs to stop thinking then and act on his gut feelings.

      The first five words of that sentence actually nailed it succinctly..

    The sentiment is not quite the same, but this was postulated upon in Apocalypse Now back in 1979, where Col. Kurtz talks about how judgement often fails us.
    Naturally, it does not apply to all situations, but interesting to consider all the same.
    For those who have not seen the film, or have forgotten:
    Col. W.E. Kurtz
    " You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment! Because it's judgment that defeats us. "

    I thought it was already pretty well known that altruism is part of human instinct...?

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now