What makes people willing to sacrifice their own self-interest for another?

What makes people willing to sacrifice their own self-interest for another?
Collaboration effect operates by creating a sense of indebtedness to the collaborator. Credit: Northwestern University

In a new Northwestern University study, researchers show that people are more willing to sacrifice for a collaborator than for someone working just as hard but working independently.

"This suggests we're more likely to share our resources with others when we feel like our lives and work are interdependent with the lives and work of those other people," said lead author Mary McGrath, assistant professor of political science in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and faculty fellow with the University's Institute for Policy Research. The effect appears to exist regardless of how much effort the partner puts in.

McGrath and co-author Alan Gerber of Yale University find evidence that this effect operates by creating a of indebtedness to the collaborator.

"When thinking about what might be driving the effect, my hunch was that this was driven by a sense of obligation to your collaborator, rather than just some general sense of goodwill—that people felt like they owed the collaborator something," McGrath said. "I was surprised by how starkly that was supported when looking into it: Indebtedness really stood out from all the rest of the possibilities. Interestingly, collaboration even had a borderline negative effect on saying you were motivated by a desire to do something nice for your partner—in other words, there's a slight indication that collaboration made you less likely to be motivated by a sense of goodwill toward the other person."

Though an impulse to repay a collaborator may be pro-social in many scenarios, McGrath noted that giving preferential treatment to those who have contributed to your cause could have problematic implications for ethical behavior.

"A politician given a generous campaign contribution could feel an innate 'moral' compulsion to satisfy a debt owed to the donor, or a doctor receiving a research grant from a pharmaceutical company may feel a similar impulse to 'give something back,'" McGrath said.

McGrath said that there's been pioneering work in developmental and comparative psychology suggesting that collaboration in our evolutionary past may have played an important role in shaping an innately human sense of distributive justice—that is, what we consider to be a "fair" distribution of resources.

"Certainly, an impulse to repay a collaborator is a good thing in many scenarios—but giving preferential treatment contingent upon a contribution to your cause has some troubling implications in terms of ethical behavior," McGrath said. "Taken together with the work suggesting that collaboration in our evolutionary past may be responsible for our developing a distinctly human sense of justice and fairness, we arrive at this surprising implication: the development of human morality and our vulnerability to corruption potentially springing from the same source."

"Experimental evidence for a pure collaboration effect" published recently in Nature Human Behaviour.


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More information: Mary C. McGrath et al. Experimental evidence for a pure collaboration effect, Nature Human Behaviour (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0530-9
Journal information: Nature Human Behaviour

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Mar 05, 2019
Since this is a deeply spiritual topic, I will add that for myself, my love of God and seeing the example of Jesus causes me to forget myself, and focus on what I can do for others. Christians are taught to sacrifice self, and take up their crosses daily, and follow Jesus in his example.

For those studying psychology, the spiritual aspect to human behavior should never be forgotten nor unstudied.

Mar 05, 2019
If bart were honest he would admit that sacrifice for another is limited to fellow tribalists and potential converts.

Tribalism determines morality and religion is tribalism in it's most virulent form.

Note how bart wants to claim spiritual superiority for believers? Bigotry is built in. Automatically assumed. God given.

Mar 05, 2019
"There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection" (Darwin, 1871)

Internal altruism + external animosity = the tribal dynamic = any and every surviving religion on earth.

Tribalism is biological. Wholly physical. There is nothing about us that is not wholly physical.

Mar 05, 2019
One of the fundamental assumptions made in Economics is that consumers will always act in a manner that maximizes their own self interest.

For more than half a century American Republicans have been acting in ways that are obviously directly opposite to their own self interest.

This fundamental assumption of Economics is thus invalidated.

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