Psychologists Study Altruism

Are humans selfish beings or is our first impulse to be cooperative?

In a Nature article published on Sept. 20, researchers in Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics proffered a solution to this age-old question of human nature. Researchers focused on solving this puzzle spanned many disciplines.

The group includes David G. Rand, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology, social sciences professor Joshua D. Greene ’96, and professor of mathematics and biology Martin A. NowakThese researchers developed a “public goods game” in which subjects were offered two options: to keep the money they were given or to contribute it to a pool that would be allocated for the group’s benefit.In an effort to simulate intuitive and deliberative responses, subjects were either asked to act immediately or to contemplate their decisions.

“When people have the chance to respond to others, is their first response altruistic or to have self-control?” asked Rand.

The researchers found that subjects’ first impulses were cooperative, while deliberation led to actions based in self-interest.

However, researchers cautioned that the study’s results were more indicative of subjects’ experiences rather than innate human characteristics.

“It might be easy to jump to the conclusion that cooperation is innate or hardwired,” said Rand. “We are not showing that at all, but rather that your intuition is shaped by your experiences in the world; if you grow up in a cooperative environment, you will be more cooperative, and if you grow up in an uncooperative environment, that will likely be your initial response.”

The scientists also discussed potential applications of their work, suggesting that emotional appeals to the masses may be more effective than logical ones, because logical arguments can cause people to act more selfishly.

Rand cautioned against the prevailing modes of leadership training.

“The executive educational system that trains individuals to make decisions in a rational and unbiased way may actually have unintended consequences and make people more selfish."

—Staff writer Fatima Mirza can be reached at


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