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Are Humans Altruistic, or Selfish? Context Is Key

New research suggests we will forgo benefits to help others, but are much less willing to suffer harm.

Are human beings inherently altruistic? At a time when Ayn Rand's selfishness-justifying philosophy is dominating congressional debate, the question is far from academic.

A just-published study—one in which participants both administered and endured painful electric shocks—provides a nuanced answer: While human beings have the capacity for genuine altruism, this impulse appears to have clearly defined limits.

Researchers from the University of California–Santa Barbara report we will forgo rewards to spare others from harm, but are largely unwilling to harm ourselves to benefit others.

"It is ultimately shortsighted to envision humans either as categorically egoistic or altruistic," write Michael Gazzaniga, Lukas Volz, and their colleagues. While it's unwise to universalize based on the responses of college students, their results suggest our attitudes toward specific social issues, such as health care, may be strongly influenced by the way they are framed.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, featured 63 participants, the majority of whom were young (around the age of 20) and female. As part of a series of interactions, they were asked to either sacrifice a monetary reward, or experience an uncomfortable jolt of electricity, to benefit another (anonymous) person.

"It is ultimately shortsighted to envision humans either as categorically egoistic or altruistic."

"Participants were willing to forgo monetary reward to spare others from physical harm," the researchers write. "However, they were not eager to inflict harm on themselves to secure rewards for the other."

That distinction—whether the second person would be actively harmed, or simply fail to be rewarded—strongly influenced the participants' choices. "A participant might forgo a large amount of reward to spare someone from harm," the researchers write, "but not suffer even modest harm for someone else's benefit."

Gazzaniga and his colleagues explain this by noting that "harm" and "reward"—often thought of as being the two ends of a spectrum—are, in fact, distinct concepts, which we process mentally using "distinct neural circuitry."

"Moral interchangeability of reward and harm may be a modern concept," they write.

A recent Israeli study provides further evidence of this. It found that, while people feel an obligation to avoid harming others, the impulse to actively help someone in need is largely confined to those in our social circle.

This distinction helps explain why it's proving harder for Republicans to take away such coverage than it was to block it from happening in the first place. Expanding health care could be viewed as providing a benefit, but taking it away is clearly doing harm. Because of the way our brains are wired, we judge those two dynamics differently.

"Ultimately, our results should not be interpreted as evidence contradicting the notion that human beings can be genuinely altruistic," the researchers conclude. Granted, they write, "Across all trials and conditions, participants accrued more reward and less harm for the self than for the other person."

But the altruistic impulse clearly arises in certain specific contexts, and this research helps us understand how and when it can be triggered. It seems that angel on our shoulder is real, but it isn't always in charge.