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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thursday's Psychology Trivia Answer: Are Humans Instinctively Selfish or Cooperative?

*Photos from Frits
This is a repost of an earlier Trivia question from 6/2013 with an updated photo:
Thought for the Day: Yesterday, I talked about superheroes & how to change the world. Today, Tuesday's Psychology Trivia Question asks whether people are selfish or cooperative by nature. What do you think? With so much strife, crime & greed in the news, do you think human beings are innately selfish? When given the choice to act in one's own interest or to help others, which do people choose? Read on for the answer...

Thought for the Day: This week, our Tuesday's Trivia looked at age old questions about human nature. Are human beings innately selfish or cooperative? With so much crime & violence, it is easy to initially say selfish. But, at the same time, as reported last April in Wednesday's Words of Wisdom: Maria Montesorri & Fred Rogers on Fear, Mr. Rogers said when talking to children about tragedies, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” So, which one is it, are homo sapiens instinctively selfish or cooperative?

A postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Harvard UniversityDavid Rand, his professors, Joshua Greene, the John & Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, & Martin Nowak, professor of mathematics & biology & director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, tried to answer this question. Their results were published in the Sept. 20, 2012 issue of Nature. Their findings may surprise you & raise multiple questions.

These researchers developed a “public goods game.” Simply put, participants were  given money & asked whether they would keep the money, or donate it to a fund, which would be used for the entire group’s benefit.

Participants first impulse was to donate the money to the group. However, when people were given the opportunity to deliberate, their decisions often shifted to self-interest. Does that mean we become more selfish when we have time to consider alternative options for the money?  The study says yes.

These findings are a bit confusing. If our first instinct is to be altruistic, then the findings indicate that we are innately cooperative. However, society may have taught us to behave selfishly when given time to contemplate how to use our money. The lines between nature & nurture seem to be blurred. Have we learned to be selfish?

The researchers caution, that their findings may depend on how we were raised, since intuition is based on our experiences. If we were raised in a more cooperative environment, we would be innately more cooperative than peers raised in less generous families. So, when we have the time to deliberate, people raised in a more cooperative household would be less likely to consider a selfish means for the money, such as a new shirt or a handbag.

Obviously, this would not hold true for every person or every situation. The most generous person, when financially strapped, could need & keep the money. Meanwhile, a truly passionate cause might make a more selfish person donate money. It all depends on the timing, & the people themselves.

This may help explain acts of heroism. In an emergency situation people often act instinctively & help one another without thinking about their own safety. 

What do you think? Have you found yourself acting instinctively for the good of the community & then changed your mind when you thought about it more carefully? Should we teach our children to be more cooperative? Or should we encourage them to think about themselves more? Where should the line between cooperativeness, self assertiveness & selfishness be drawn?

Thanks to Dream Team Intern Steph Jacovino for her assistance with this post!

Both amazing Illustrations By Frits
 Bottled Up
Photo credit: <a href=""></a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

Ladder Photo credit: <a href=""></a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a> 

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