The More We Think, The More Selfish We Are

A study from Harvard University has found that the more time we are given to think, the more selfish our decisions become.

Scientists performed ten separate studies on cooperation and the effect it had on various participants. The goal of the experiments was to understand whether we are inherently selfish or greedy.

Many of the studies used Amazon Mechanical Turk (an online labor market that pays workers for ‘quick jobs’) to gauge generosity as it relates to response time, and for the sake of having a highly diverse pool of participants.

212 participants were paid 40 cents for a ‘quick job’ and asked to contribute whatever amount they wanted to a communal pool that would be doubled by the researchers and divvied up among the participants. The researchers compared the time it took to make a decision with the amount contributed. The longer people took to decide, the less they put into the pool.

Here’s the really interesting part:

The researchers conducted a variation of this study, but manipulated the amount of time people had in which to decide how much to donate. One group of subjects had to make their decisions within ten seconds; other subjects had to wait ten seconds before they were allowed to contribute anything, and third group of participants had no time constraints at all. The researchers found that subjects under time pressure gave significantly more money than either those that had to wait or those that were unconstrained. Participants in the ‘time-delay’ condition were the least generous, donating significantly less money than those in the other two groups.

Researchers stated that this same behavior can be viewed when money is involved, or when simply playing a game. The studies seem to suggest that greed is just an afterthought, that we are instinctively generous, but rational thought turns us into Orwellian pigs.

So, does this mean we are all genetically generous, divine creatures, corrupted by materialism and competition?  Probably not. Researchers noted that

“Nurture may play an important role here. Humans are reared in a generally cooperative society where we engage in repeated interactions with people we know, and where our reputations are important. Under these conditions, we likely learn that cooperation is the best way to proceed, and subsequently act this way instinctively.”

The test results are clear, but the conclusions remain a mystery.  What do you think?



Ars Technica: Cooperation comes easily but thinking makes us selfish Spontaneous Giving and Calculated Greed

Amazon Mechanical Turk



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