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Thursday, December 30, 2021

When Helping Is Risky: The Behavioral and Neurobiological Trade-off of Social and Risk Preferences

Gross, J., Faber, N. S., et al.  (2021).
Psychological Science, 32(11), 1842–1855.


Helping other people can entail risks for the helper. For example, when treating infectious patients, medical volunteers risk their own health. In such situations, decisions to help should depend on the individual’s valuation of others’ well-being (social preferences) and the degree of personal risk the individual finds acceptable (risk preferences). We investigated how these distinct preferences are psychologically and neurobiologically integrated when helping is risky. We used incentivized decision-making tasks (Study 1; N = 292 adults) and manipulated dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain by administering methylphenidate, atomoxetine, or a placebo (Study 2; N = 154 adults). We found that social and risk preferences are independent drivers of risky helping. Methylphenidate increased risky helping by selectively altering risk preferences rather than social preferences. Atomoxetine influenced neither risk preferences nor social preferences and did not affect risky helping. This suggests that methylphenidate-altered dopamine concentrations affect helping decisions that entail a risk to the helper.

From the Discussion

From a practical perspective, both methylphenidate (sold under the trade name Ritalin) and atomoxetine (sold under the trade name Strattera) are prescription drugs used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and are regularly used off-label by people who aim to enhance their cognitive performance (Maier et al., 2018). Thus, our results have implications for the ethics of and policy for the use of psychostimulants. Indeed, the Global Drug Survey taken in 2015 and 2017 revealed that 3.2% and 6.6% of respondents, respectively, reported using psychostimulants such as methylphenidate for cognitive enhancement (Maier et al., 2018). Both in the professional ethical debate as well as in the general public, concerns about the medical safety and the fairness of such cognitive enhancements are discussed (Faber et al., 2016). However, our finding that methylphenidate alters helping behavior through increased risk seeking demonstrates that substances aimed at changing cognitive functioning can also influence social behavior. Such “social” side effects of cognitive enhancement (whether deemed positive or negative) are currently unknown to both users and administrators and thus do not receive much attention in the societal debate about psychostimulant use (Faulmüller et al., 2013).