Are We Naturally Altruistic or Selfish

Posted on October 24, 2018

Since childhood, our parents have taught us that sharing is caring and encouraged us to engage in pro-social, cooperative behaviours with our siblings and playmates, resulting in our inclination to be generous and helpful to the people around us, including new acquaintances and even strangers.

However, a new study suggests that our pro-social inclinations may be just as easily unlearned and turned off when dealing with strangers that we do not intent to meet again.

The idea of human altruism has its roots in evolutionary psychology, where the theories suggest that humans have an evolved mechanism to be pro-social because of our need for interdependence and reciprocal norms with other humans. Over the course of history, we have thus automatized this behavioural response to something almost instinctive-like.

This highlights that our social behaviours are grounded in the basis of reciprocity, because we expect the favour we do unto others – whether good or bad – to be returned in kind. As the saying goes, “What goes around, comes around”.

Hence, if we evaluate a social other and conclude that we are not likely to see this person again, and by extension, that whatever good or bad thing we do will not be returned in kind, we are less likely to display altruistic behaviours that could cost us. This means that after repeated experiences of such experiences, as well as anonymous interactions, we don’t see the need to be “nice” and as a result, we are less likely to automatically go for the cooperative response.

In an attempt to investigate this theory, researchers recruited 200 volunteers and subjected them to a social environment where their responses towards others were not tagged to any consequence or reward. The results measured how their behavior changed over the course of the experiment.

In the initial rounds, participants’ behavioural response were fairly typical and as predicted – they shared monetary winnings with strangers and donated about 50% of their winnings to charity. However, a month into the experiment, their altruism had dwindled to 20% less than before.

The researchers posited that the participants had realized the experimental situations were different from real-life in that there were no consequences or rewards for their actions, and once this element of reciprocity was removed from the cognitive representation of the situation, it seemed as though participants realized they did not need to be ‘nice’.

The findings from this study has real-life implications in possibly explaining why residents of big cities have been observed to be less friendly to strangers than people living in smaller towns, suggesting that because big city folks do not expect to have further interactions with the people they encounter, they do not see the need to be as altruistic or pro-social as small town folks whose communities are usually more tightly-knitted.

Category(s):Adult psychological development, Other

Source material from Medical Xpress

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