Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy
Showing posts with label Prosocial Behaviors. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Prosocial Behaviors. Show all posts

Friday, October 20, 2023

Competition and moral behavior: A meta-analysis of forty-five crowd-sourced experimental designs

Huber, C., Dreber, A., et al. (2023).
PNAS of the United States of America, 120(23).


Does competition affect moral behavior? This fundamental question has been debated among leading scholars for centuries, and more recently, it has been tested in experimental studies yielding a body of rather inconclusive empirical evidence. A potential source of ambivalent empirical results on the same hypothesis is design heterogeneity—variation in true effect sizes across various reasonable experimental research protocols. To provide further evidence on whether competition affects moral behavior and to examine whether the generalizability of a single experimental study is jeopardized by design heterogeneity, we invited independent research teams to contribute experimental designs to a crowd-sourced project. In a large-scale online data collection, 18,123 experimental participants were randomly allocated to 45 randomly selected experimental designs out of 95 submitted designs. We find a small adverse effect of competition on moral behavior in a meta-analysis of the pooled data. The crowd-sourced design of our study allows for a clean identification and estimation of the variation in effect sizes above and beyond what could be expected due to sampling variance. We find substantial design heterogeneity—estimated to be about 1.6 times as large as the average standard error of effect size estimates of the 45 research designs—indicating that the informativeness and generalizability of results based on a single experimental design are limited. Drawing strong conclusions about the underlying hypotheses in the presence of substantive design heterogeneity requires moving toward much larger data collections on various experimental designs testing the same hypothesis.


Using experiments involves leeway in choosing one out of many possible experimental designs. This choice constitutes a source of uncertainty in estimating the underlying effect size which is not incorporated into common research practices. This study presents the results of a crowd-sourced project in which 45 independent teams implemented research designs to address the same research question: Does competition affect moral behavior? We find a small adverse effect of competition on moral behavior in a meta-analysis involving 18,123 experimental participants. Importantly, however, the variation in effect size estimates across the 45 designs is substantially larger than the variation expected due to sampling errors. This “design heterogeneity” highlights that the generalizability and informativeness of individual experimental designs are limited.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the research:
  • Competition can have a small, but significant, negative effect on moral behavior.
  • This effect is likely due to the fact that competition can lead to people being more self-interested and less concerned about the well-being of others.
  • The findings of this research have important implications for our understanding of how competition affects moral behavior.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Market Cognition: How Exchange Norms Alter Social Experience

Zaki, J., Neumann, E., & Baltiansky, D. (2021).
Current Directions in Psychological Science, 
30(3), 236–241.


Market exchange and the ideologies that accompany it pervade human social interaction. How does this affect people’s beliefs about themselves, each other, and human nature? Here we describe market cognition as social inferences and behaviors that are intensified by market contexts. We focus on prosociality and two countervailing ways in which market cognition can affect it. On the one hand, marketplaces incentivize individuals to behave prosocially in order to be chosen as exchange partners—thereby generalizing cooperation and trust beyond group boundaries. On the other hand, markets encourage a view of people as self-interested and can thus taint people’s interpretation of prosocial actions and erode more communal forms of cooperation. We close by considering how market cognition can become self-fulfilling, altering relationships, communities, and cultural norms.

Background: Market exchange is a ubiquitous feature of modern life, and it has been argued that this can have a profound impact on our social cognition.

Research question: The authors of this article investigated how market norms and beliefs can alter our social inferences and behaviors.

Conclusions: The authors concluded that market cognition can have a self-fulfilling prophecy effect. When we believe that others are self-interested, we are more likely to act selfishly ourselves. This can then lead others to believe that we are self-interested, and so on.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Beliefs about humanity, not higher power, predict extraordinary altruism

Amormino, P., O'Connell, et al.
Journal of Research in Personality
Volume 101, December 2022, 104313


Using a rare sample of altruistic kidney donors (n = 56, each of whom had donated a kidney to a stranger) and demographically similar controls (n = 75), we investigated how beliefs about human nature correspond to extraordinary altruism. Extraordinary altruists were less likely than controls to believe that humans can be truly evil. Results persisted after controlling for trait empathy and religiosity. Belief in pure good was not associated with extraordinary altruism. We found no differences in the religiosity and spirituality of extraordinary altruists compared to controls. Findings suggest that highly altruistic individuals believe that others deserve help regardless of their potential moral shortcomings. Results provide preliminary evidence that lower levels of cynicism motivate costly, non-normative altruism toward strangers.


We found for the first time a significant negative relationship between real-world acts of altruism toward strangers and the belief that humans can be purely evil. Specifically, our results showed that adults who have engaged in costly altruism toward strangers are distinguished from typical adults by their reduced tendency to believe that humans can be purely evil. By contrast, altruists were no more likely than controls to believe that humans can be purely good. These patterns could not be accounted for by demographic differences, differences in self reported empathy, or differences in religious or spiritual beliefs.

This finding could be viewed as paradoxical, in that extraordinary altruists are themselves often viewed as the epitome of pure good—even described as “saints” in the scholarly literature (Henderson et al., 2003).
But our findings suggest that the willingness to provide costly aid for anonymous strangers may not require believing that others are purely \good (i.e., that morally infallible people exist), but rather believing that there is at least a little bit of good in everyone. Thus, extraordinary altruists are not overly optimistic about the moral goodness of other people but are willing to act altruistically towards morally imperfect people anyway. Although the concept of “pure evil” is conceptually linked to spiritual phenomena, we did not find any evidence directly linking altruists’ beliefs in evil to spirituality or religion.



Because altruistic kidney donations to anonymous strangers satisfy the most stringent definitions of costly altruism (Clavien & Chapuisat, 2013), the study of these altruists can provide valuable insight into the nature of altruism, much as studying other rare, ecologically valid populations has yielded insights into psychological phenomena such asmemory (LePort et al., 2012) and face processing (Russell, Duchaine, &
Nakayama, 2009). Results show that altruists report lower belief in pure evil, which extends previous literature showing that higher levels of generalized trust and lower levels of cynicism and are associated with everyday prosocial behavior (Turner & Valentine, 2001). Our findings provide preliminary evidence that beliefs about the morality of people in general, and the goodness (or rather, lack of badness) of other humans may help motivate real-world costly altruistic acts toward strangers.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Sleep loss leads to the withdrawal of human helping across individuals, groups, and large-scale societies

Ben Simon E, Vallat R, Rossi A, Walker MP (2022) 
PLoS Biol 20(8): e3001733.


Humans help each other. This fundamental feature of homo sapiens has been one of the most powerful forces sculpting the advent of modern civilizations. But what determines whether humans choose to help one another? Across 3 replicating studies, here, we demonstrate that sleep loss represents one previously unrecognized factor dictating whether humans choose to help each other, observed at 3 different scales (within individuals, across individuals, and across societies). First, at an individual level, 1 night of sleep loss triggers the withdrawal of help from one individual to another. Moreover, fMRI findings revealed that the withdrawal of human helping is associated with deactivation of key nodes within the social cognition brain network that facilitates prosociality. Second, at a group level, ecological night-to-night reductions in sleep across several nights predict corresponding next-day reductions in the choice to help others during day-to-day interactions. Third, at a large-scale national level, we demonstrate that 1 h of lost sleep opportunity, inflicted by the transition to Daylight Saving Time, reduces real-world altruistic helping through the act of donation giving, established through the analysis of over 3 million charitable donations. Therefore, inadequate sleep represents a significant influential force determining whether humans choose to help one another, observable across micro- and macroscopic levels of civilized interaction. The implications of this effect may be non-trivial when considering the essentiality of human helping in the maintenance of cooperative, civil society, combined with the reported decline in sufficient sleep in many first-world nations.

From the Discussion section

Taken together, findings across all 3 studies establish insufficient sleep (both quantity and quality) as a degrading force influencing whether or not humans wish to help each other, and do indeed, choose to help each other (through real-world altruistic acts), observable at 3 different societal scales: within individuals, across individuals, and at a nationwide level.

Study 1 established not only the causal impact of sleep loss on the basic desire to help another human being, but further characterised the central underlying brain mechanism associated with this altered phenotype of diminished helping. Specifically, sleep loss significantly and selectively reduced activity throughout key nodes of the social cognition brain network (see Fig 1B) normally associated with prosociality, including perspective taking of others’ mental state, their emotions, and their personal needs. Therefore, impairment of this neural system caused by a lack of sleep represents one novel pathway explaining the associated withdrawal of helping desire and the decisional act to offer such help.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Social norms and dishonesty across societies

Aycinena, D., et al.
PNAS, 119 (31), 2022.


Social norms have long been recognized as an important factor in curtailing antisocial behavior, and stricter prosocial norms are commonly associated with increased prosocial behavior. In this study, we provide evidence that very strict prosocial norms can have a perverse negative relationship with prosocial behavior. In laboratory experiments conducted in 10 countries across 5 continents, we measured the level of honest behavior and elicited injunctive norms of honesty. We find that individuals who hold very strict norms (i.e., those who perceive a small lie to be as socially unacceptable as a large lie) are more likely to lie to the maximal extent possible. This finding is consistent with a simple behavioral rationale. If the perceived norm does not differentiate between the severity of a lie, lying to the full extent is optimal for a norm violator since it maximizes the financial gain, while the perceived costs of the norm violation are unchanged. We show that the relation between very strict prosocial norms and high levels of rule violations generalizes to civic norms related to common moral dilemmas, such as tax evasion, cheating on government benefits, and fare dodging on public transportation. Those with very strict attitudes toward civic norms are more likely to lie to the maximal extent possible. A similar relation holds across countries. Countries with a larger fraction of people with very strict attitudes toward civic norms have a higher society-level prevalence of rule violations.


Much of the research in the experimental and behavioral sciences finds that stronger prosocial norms lead to higher levels of prosocial behavior. Here, we show that very strict prosocial norms are negatively correlated with prosocial behavior. Using laboratory experiments on honesty, we demonstrate that individuals who hold very strict norms of honesty are more likely to lie to the maximal extent. Further, countries with a larger fraction of people with very strict civic norms have proportionally more societal-level rule violations. We show that our findings are consistent with a simple behavioral rationale. If perceived norms are so strict that they do not differentiate between small and large violations, then, conditional on a violation occurring, a large violation is individually optimal.

In essence, very strict social norms can backfire.  People can lie to the fullest extent with similar costs to minimal lying.

Friday, January 14, 2022

A Little Good Goes an Unexpectedly Long Way: Underestimating the Positive Impact of Kindness on Recipients

Kumar, A., & Epley, N. 
(2021, November 15). 


Performing random acts of kindness increases happiness in both givers and receivers, but we find that givers systematically undervalue their positive impact on recipients. In both field and laboratory settings (Experiments 1a-2b), those performing a random act of kindness predicted how positive recipients would feel and recipients reported how they actually felt. From giving away a cup of hot chocolate in a park to giving away a gift in the lab, those performing a random act of kindness consistently underestimated how positive their recipients would feel, thinking their act was of less value than recipients perceived it to be. Givers’ miscalibrated expectations are driven partly by an egocentric bias in evaluations of the act itself (Experiment 3). Whereas recipients’ positive reactions are enhanced by the warmth conveyed in a kind act, givers’ expectations are relatively insensitive to the warmth conveyed in their action. Underestimating the positive impact of a random act of kindness also leads givers to underestimate the behavioral consequences their prosociality will produce in recipients through indirect reciprocity (Experiment 4). We suggest that givers’ miscalibrated expectations matter because they can create a barrier to engaging in prosocial actions more often in everyday life (Experiments 5a-5b), to the detriment of people’s own wellbeing, to others’ wellbeing, and to civil society.

General Discussion

Prosocial actions, such as performing random acts of kindness, tend to improve wellbeing for both those who perform prosocial acts as well as for those who receive them.  Indeed, those who performed a random act of kindness in our experiments reported feeling significantly more positive than they normally do, and two of the experiments confirmed that performers felt better than participants who were not given the opportunity to perform a random act of kindness. Another found that performers of acts of kindness felt more positive after being kind than they reported feeling at the beginning of the experiment.Being more prosocial did not come at a cost to people’s own wellbeing; it enhanced it.  Daily life, however, affords many opportunities for engaging in these sorts of prosocial activities that people do not seem to take.  We believe our research suggests one possible reason why: that those performing random acts of kindness undervalue the positive impact they are having on recipients.  People’s choices are often guided by either an implicit or explicit calculation of expected value (Becker, 1993).  Underestimating how positive a recipient would feel after even a small act of kindness could lead people to engage in prosocial actions less often than might be optimal for both their own and others’ wellbeing.

Across many different actions, with many different participants, and in many different contexts, performers systematically perceived their random act of kindness to be a more minor action than recipients perceived it to be, and also systematically underestimated how positive recipients would feel afterwards.Performers were not confused, of course, that recipients would feel good about their experience.  In all cases performers expected recipients to feel more positive than they normally do.  Nevertheless, performers were still systematically miscalibrated as recipients felt even better than expected.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Good deeds and hard knocks: The effect of past suffering on praise for moral behavior

P. Robbins, F. Alvera, & P. Litton
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 97, November 2021


Are judgments of praise for moral behavior modulated by knowledge of an agent's past suffering at the hands of others, and if so, in what direction? Drawing on multiple lines of research in experimental social psychology, we identify three hypotheses about the psychology of praise — typecasting, handicapping, and non-historicism — each of which supports a different answer to the question above. Typecasting predicts that information about past suffering will augment perceived patiency and thereby diminish perceived agency, making altruistic actions seem less praiseworthy; handicapping predicts that this information will make altruistic actions seem more effortful, and hence more praiseworthy; and non-historicism predicts that judgments of praise will be insensitive to information about an agent's experiential history. We report the results of two studies suggesting that altruistic behavior tends to attract more praise when the experiential history of the agent involves coping with adversity in childhood rather than enjoying prosperity (Study 1, N = 348, p = .03, d = 0.45; Study 2, N = 400, p = .02, d = 0.39), as well as the results of a third study suggesting that altruistic behavior tends to be evaluated more favorably when the experiential history of the agent includes coping with adversity than in the absence of information about the agent's past experience (N = 226, p = .002). This pattern of results, we argue, is more consistent with handicapping than typecasting or non-historicism.

From the Discussion

One possibility is that a history of suffering is perceived as depleting the psychological resources required for acting morally, making it difficult for someone to shift attention from their own needs to the needs of others. This is suggested by the stereotype of people who have suffered hardships in early life, especially at the hands of caregivers, which includes a tendency to be socially anxious, insecure, and withdrawn — a stereotype which may have some basis in fact (Elliott, Cunningham, Linder, Colangelo, & Gross, 2005). A history of suffering, that is, might seem like an obstacle to developing the kind of social mindedness exemplified by acts of altruism and other forms of prosocial behavior, which are typically motivated by feelings of compassion or empathic concern. This is an open empirical question, worthy of investigation not just in connection with handicapping and typecasting (and historicist accounts of praise more generally) but in its own right.

This research may have implications for psychotherapy.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Biased Benevolence: The Perceived Morality of Effective Altruism Across Social Distance

Law, K. F., Campbell, D., & Gaesser, B. 
(2019, July 11). 


Is altruism always morally good, or is the morality of altruism fundamentally shaped by the social opportunity costs that often accompany helping decisions? Across five studies, we reveal that, although helping both socially closer and socially distant others is generally perceived favorably (Study 1), in cases of realistic tradeoffs in social distance for gains in welfare where helping socially distant others necessitates not helping socially closer others with the same resources, helping is deemed as less morally acceptable (Studies 2-5). Making helping decisions at a cost to socially closer others also negatively affects judgments of relationship quality (Study 3) and in turn, decreases cooperative behavior with the helper (Study 4). Ruling out an alternative explanation of physical distance accounting for the effects in Studies 1-4, social distance continued to impact moral acceptability when physical distance across social targets was matched (Study 5). These findings reveal that attempts to decrease biases in helping may have previously unconsidered consequences for moral judgments, relationships, and cooperation.

General Discussion

When judging the morality of altruistic tradeoffs in social distance for gains in welfare advocated by the philosophy and social movement of effective altruism, we find that the perceived morality of altruism is graded by social distance. People consistently view socially distant altruism as less morally acceptable as the person not receiving help becomes socially closer to the agent helping. This suggests that whereas altruism is generally evaluated as morally praiseworthy, the moral calculus of altruism flexibly shifts according to the social distance between the person offering aid and the people in need. Such findings highlight the empirical value and theoretical importance of investigating moral judgments situated in real-world social contexts.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

When does empathy feel good?

Ferguson, A. M., Cameron, D., & Inzlicht, M. 
(2021, March 12). 


Empathy has many benefits. When we are willing to empathize, we are more likely to act prosocially (and receive help from others in the future), to have satisfying relationships, and to be viewed as moral actors. Moreover, empathizing in certain contexts can actually feel good, regardless of the content of the emotion itself—for example, we might feel a sense of connection after empathizing with and supporting a grieving friend. Does this feeling come from empathy itself, or from its real and implied consequences? We suggest that the rewards that flow from empathy confound our experience of it, and that the pleasant feelings associated with engaging empathy are extrinsically tied to the results of some action, not to the experience of empathy itself. When we observe people’s decisions related to empathy in the absence of these acquired rewards, as we can in experimental settings, empathy appears decidedly less pleasant. Empathy has many benefits. When we are willing to empathize, we are more likely to act prosocially (and receive help from others in the future), to have satisfying relationships, and to be viewed as moral actors. Moreover, empathizing in certain contexts can actually feel good, regardless of the content of the emotion itself—for example, we might feel a sense of connection after empathizing with and supporting a grieving friend. Does this feeling come from empathy itself, or from its real and implied consequences? We suggest that the rewards that flow from empathy confound our experience of it, and that the pleasant feelings associated with engaging empathy are extrinsically tied to the results of some action, not to the experience of empathy itself. When we observe people’s decisions related to empathy in the absence of these acquired rewards, as we can in experimental settings, empathy appears decidedly less pleasant.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

A chip off the (im)moral block? Lay beliefs about genetic heritability predicts whether family members’ actions affect self-judgments

Peetz, J., Wohl, M. J. A., Wilson, A. E., 
& Dawson, A. 
(2021, March 18).


The idea of heritability may have consequences for individuals’ sense of self by connecting identity to the actions of others who happen to share genetic ties. Across seven experimental studies (total N=2,628), recalling morally bad or good actions by family members influenced individuals’ moral self among those who endorse a lay belief that moral character is genetically heritable, but not among those who did not endorse this belief (Study 1-5). In contrast, recalling actions by unrelated individuals had no effect, regardless of lay beliefs (Study 2, 5), the endorsement of other relevant lay beliefs did not moderate the effect of parent’s actions on self-judgments (Study 3). Individuals who endorsed heritability beliefs also chose less helpful responses to hypothetical helping scenarios if they had recalled unhelpful (vs. helpful) acts by a genetically-related family member (Study 5). Taken together, these studies suggest that lay beliefs in the role of genetics are important for self-perceptions.

General Discussion 

In the present research, we examined whether a person’s convictions about their own moral character might be shaped, in part, by the actions of others. Across seven studies, we found evidence that past actions by genetically related family members, and specifically parents, can influence an individual’s sense of moral self –but only if that individual believes that the critical aspect of the self (in our studies, moral character) is genetically inherited (Study 1-5). Past actions by genetically unrelated individuals such as friends or strangers (Study 2), and unrelated family members (Study 5) did not affect participants’ moral self-judgment in the same way, and other lay beliefs(i.e., socialization and the malleability of morality) did not moderate the influence of parents’ actions in the same way (Study 3).

Theoretical Contributions

Self and Identity

This research helps disentangle some of the questions about whether and when other people’s action may influence individuals’ self-concept.  Although the existing literature has demonstrated that the actions of others can indeed have an impact on the self (e.g., people may feel threatened, embarrassed, proud or guilty when reminded of the actions of others and may sometimes believe they will be judged on the basis of others’ actions), past work has not focused on how actions of others might affect self-concept. Further, prior research in this vein has not typically systematically considered whether the effects of others’ actions on the self is the result of that relation being chosen (i.e., friendship), being due to group membership, or being due to genetics(i.e., family). We extend past knowledge in this field by examining whether people’s beliefs about genetic heritability can determine the degree to which family members’ actions predict one’s own self-judgments.   

Friday, December 18, 2020

Are Free Will Believers Nicer People? (Four Studies Suggest Not)

Crone DL, & Levy NL. 
Social Psychological and 
Personality Science. 2019;10(5):612-619. 


Free will is widely considered a foundational component of Western moral and legal codes, and yet current conceptions of free will are widely thought to fit uncomfortably with much research in psychology and neuroscience. Recent research investigating the consequences of laypeople’s free will beliefs (FWBs) for everyday moral behavior suggests that stronger FWBs are associated with various desirable moral characteristics (e.g., greater helpfulness, less dishonesty). These findings have sparked concern regarding the potential for moral degeneration throughout society as science promotes a view of human behavior that is widely perceived to undermine the notion of free will. We report four studies (combined N = 921) originally concerned with possible mediators and/or moderators of the abovementioned associations. Unexpectedly, we found no association between FWBs and moral behavior. Our findings suggest that the FWB–moral behavior association (and accompanying concerns regarding decreases in FWBs causing moral degeneration) may be overstated.

(Bold added by me.)