Study Says Most People Prefer Losing Money To Hurting A Stranger

Written by Emi Boscamp

If you needed your faith in humanity restored today, there's good news: A new study found that people would rather lose money than inflict pain on another person — even if that person is a stranger.

According to a paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, participants in a study were willing to give up money in order to prevent a hidden stranger from being administered a painful electric shock.

For the study, researchers grouped participants into pairs, but prevented them from seeing each other. One was randomly selected to be the "decider," meaning she controlled the number shocks given to herself or her partner. The catch is that the shocks cost money, and the decider always got to keep the money. So it shouldn't be a big deal to dish out more mild shocks to an anonymous partner, right, if the decider collects either way?

Science Magazine explains the (slightly confusing) study design, along with the surprising results:

The total amount of money that could be gained in a trial varied from about $0.15 to $15, but there were always two deals to choose from. The decider might have to choose, for example, between doling out seven shocks for $10 versus doling out 10 shocks for $7. Or sometimes the shocks were cheaper in bulk: You could dole out seven shocks for $10 versus 10 shocks for $15. No matter who got the shocks — the computer told the decider who would get the shocks — the decider always got the money [...] The study's participants did not like the pain of receiving a shock, because they were willing to make about $0.30 less money per shock on average to receive fewer of them. But people were willing to lose twice that amount, $0.60 per shock, to hurt an anonymous other less.

In other words, people were even more generous with their money when it came to reducing shocks to others than they were reducing shocks to themselves.

The findings go against those of Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiments in which people consistently followed an experimenter's instructions to deliver what appeared to be increasingly uncomfortable shocks. Is it possible that we've become better people since the '60s?

If you're raising an eyebrow in suspicion, you're not alone. The researchers were stunned by the results, too, according to Science:

"This is a landmark study," says Johannes Haushofer, a psychologist at Princeton University. The result is "both obvious and surprising." Intuition dictates that people should be willing to give up some money to avoid the distress of hurting someone. But "despite decades of research, the effect had not previously been demonstrated," he says.

With further studies, the researchers hope that eventually we can get people — especially in positions of power — to access this altruism by showing them how painful the consequences of their actions can be when they take the easy (or more selfish) way out.

For now, it's nice to know that human nature may not be innately bad — that we might actually be looking out for people other than ourselves.

Do you know what choice would you make in this situation? Are you sure?

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