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To harm or not to harm: that is the question

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A new study by University College London (UCL) and the University of Oxford has found that altruism may not work exactly as theorized. Previous experiments on altruism suggested that people generally do not value others' interests as much as their own. Yet when faced with the decision of whether to profit from another's pain, people were far more  altruistic than predicted from prior studies. To demonstrate this, the researchers divided participants into two groups: deciders and receivers. The deciders and receivers could not see or talk to one another. Deciders made choices about how much they would pay to prevent mild electric shocks directed either toward themselves or to the receivers.

The researchers found, much to their surprise, that the deciders would on average pay about twice as much money to prevent shocks to the receivers as they would pay to prevent shocks to themselves. So for example they would pay on average 8 pounds to prevent 20 shocks to others but only 4 pounds to spare themselves 20 shocks. But context mattered; when asked to donate a portion their winnings to charity after the study, the deciders only gave 20% of their winnings on average, suggesting people may apply different moral principles when deciding about money versus harm.

Where would YOU have drawn the line on how much to shock others for money? Is altruism something that exists in us all? How much does context affect when and how much you give?


Molly Crockett, PhD, lead author of the study and researcher at Oxford University