How much money would you pay to prevent a complete stranger from being administered an electric shock? And how would that compare to what you'd give up to prevent your own pain? A fascinating new experiment suggests we may be more altruistic than we think.

When it comes to experiments involving electric shocks and moral decision making, most of us are reminded of the infamous Milgram Experiment, in which subjects — with some pressure from an authority figure — participated in a process that they believed shocked someone to death. It painted a grim picture of human nature, one reinforced by subsequent economic studies showing that people care more about their own interests than those of others.

But researchers from University College London and Oxford University have taken a different approach by comparing how much pain — in the form of mildly painful electric shocks — people are willing to anonymously inflict on strangers or themselves in exchange for money. The results were surprisingly encouraging: most people value the pain of others more than their own pain as witnessed by their willingness to pay more to reduce the pain of others than their own pain. What's more, most people will demand more compensation if they have to increase the pain of others relative to their own.

Mildly Shocking

For the experiment, 160 participants (aged 18-35) were randomly assigned to the roles of "decider" and "receiver" and randomly paired up such that each decider didn't know who the receiver was and vice-versa. All decisions were kept confidential during the experiment to prevent the deciders from feeling judged; this ensured that people in the study weren't behaving altruistically because they knew they were being observed.

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Because people have different pain tolerances, a thresholding procedure was conducted beforehand. This was done to make sure that the pain was "equal" for all participants. An electric stimulation device called a Digitimer was used to deliver electric shocks to the left wrists of the volunteers. The shocks were mildly painful (akin to very hot water) with an intensity that wasn't intolerable. Deciders were told that shocks to receivers would be at the receiver's pain threshold. Anyone could leave the experiment at any time.

Deciders were put into a room alone with a computer terminal, and each participated in 150 to 160 trials. They had to choose between different amounts of money for different numbers of shocks, up to a maximum 20 shocks and £20 per trial (that's about USD$31). The decider always got the money — but sometimes the shocks were for the decider, and sometimes for themselves.

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The researchers, a team led by Molly Crockett, found that on average people were willing to sacrifice about twice as much money to prevent another person from being shocked than to prevent themselves from being shocked. For example, deciders would give up £8 to prevent 20 shocks to another person but would only give up £4 to prevent 20 shocks to themselves.

"These results contradict not just classical assumptions of human self-interest, but also more modern views of altruism," noted Crockett in a statement. "Recent theories claim people value others' interests to some extent, but never more than their own. We have shown that when it comes to harm, most people put others before themselves. People would rather profit from their own pain than from someone else's."

Innate or Learned?

The study, which now appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has attracted considerable attention. Some are hailing it as the first hard evidence of altruism for the young field of behavioral economics, and that it's proof that altruism is "hard-wired" or innate. In response to a number of concerns and misconceptions, Crockett has penned an article for The Guardian. She writes:

Our experiment can say nothing about the extent to which altruism is innate versus learned through experience. Addressing this question is actually quite difficult; to "prove" that a given behavior is innate is next to impossible. One source of relevant evidence comes from studies on infants. If a behavior can be observed in very young infants, this implies that it may be innate since infants have had very little time to learn through experience. Studies by researchers at Yale and the University of British Columbia have shown that even 3-month-old infants show a preference for helpful characters over harmful characters, suggesting that the roots of morality may be innate. But our study was conducted on adults aged 18-35, so they would have had plenty of time to learn about the moral costs of harming others.

And in response to the suggestion that the results "prove" that altruism actually exists, she says:

First, I'd point out that lab experiments are not necessary to demonstrate the existence of human altruism – examples of selfless acts of kindness toward strangers abound in the real world. And previous lab studies have shown that humans, monkeys, and even rats are sometimes willing to sacrifice personal benefits to spare another's suffering.

An open question, however, is to what extent altruistic behaviors are motivated by a "true" concern for the well-being of others, versus more self-serving motives such as the desire to boost one's reputation or even the pleasant feeling that results from being kind. Although I'm fairly confident that the volunteers in our recent study were not making altruistic choices out of concern for their reputation, we cannot rule out the possibility that they behaved altruistically in order to avoid feeling guilty, or to feel good about themselves, rather than because they truly cared about the suffering of others.

Implications

These issues aside, the findings offer a surprisingly optimistic view of human nature — one that could help behavioral economists, psychologists, and neuroscientists understand how people balance financial gains against the suffering of others. This finding may help us better understand how people resolve moral dilemmas that commonly arise in medical, legal, and political decision making, and result in public policies that improve the welfare of citizens or employees.

The research could also shed light into clinical disorders characterized by a lack of empathy, such as psychopathy and narcissism. People who rank high on the psychopathological spectrum are more likely to harm both others and themselves, which suggests a general insensitivity to harm. Studies like this one could help scientists understand how people evaluate the suffering of others relative to themselves, and how that differs in people with antisocial tendencies.

Read the entire study at PNAS: "Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making".

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