People Would Rather Lose Money Than Harm a Stranger

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Sometimes people are kinder than you expect them to be. In a finding that surprised a team of British researchers, participants in a study were willing to lose money in order to save an unseen stranger from a painful electric shock, according to a paper published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

You might have heard of another famous study involving electric shocks, in which people did not act so kindly toward each other; that study, done in the 1970s and led by Stanley Milgram, found that people obeyed an experimenter’s instructions to send what appeared to be increasingly painful shocks to a stranger. This new study hints at a more altruistic side of humanity. 

Participants were paired with partners, though they never saw each other, and seated in front of separate computers. One of each pair was named the “decider,” meaning they got to choose how many shocks to deliver to either themselves or their partner. Sending fewer of the jolts meant less money, while sending more of them meant a profit that ranged from $0.15 to $15 (which the decider always got to keep, no matter who got the zap). On average, the deciders were willing to lose about $0.30 to give themselves fewer shocks. But they gave up double that, $0.60 on average, to save their partner from the pain. (In a write-up of the paper, Science compared the pain of the shock to holding your wrist under a stream of 122-degree water.)

The finding is especially surprising given recent research that suggested simply looking at money seems to cause us to act with fewer of those silly human emotions. The researchers were apparently so baffled by their results that, in the 350-word summary of the paper, the word surprising appears twice. But they hope future studies can provide an explanation and even show how to get people to tap into this altruistic side in a real-life setting in which losing some money could alleviate a stranger’s pain. But for now, it’s nice to know that people aren’t always the worst.