Breaking News
November 21, 2018 - FDA Alert: Gilenya (fingolimod): Drug Safety Communication
November 21, 2018 - Uric Acid Test: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information
November 21, 2018 - Researchers use genetics to predict response to antipsychotic medications
November 21, 2018 - Proposal to include the price of drugs in television ads is flawed, Stanford scholar writes
November 21, 2018 - Disrupting reproduction strategy of disease-causing parasites could help fight malaria
November 20, 2018 - ACAAI: Almost 2 Percent of Children Have Milk Allergy
November 20, 2018 - Congenital anomalies of kidney and urinary tract – Genetics Home Reference
November 20, 2018 - Can video games improve the health of older adults with schizophrenia?
November 20, 2018 - Can flicking a molecular switch restore the aging immune system’s competence?
November 20, 2018 - Restek launches new Oregon cannabis pesticide standards
November 20, 2018 - Health sector coalition urges Government to safeguard patients in future UK-EU relationship
November 20, 2018 - Study evaluates second-hand marijuana smoke exposure among children
November 20, 2018 - Scientists identify three genes responsible for recurrent molar pregnancies
November 20, 2018 - Researchers identify multisystem disorder caused by bi-allelic variants in CCDC47 gene
November 20, 2018 - Dining Out With Allergies Is Tough, But These Steps Can Help
November 20, 2018 - Breastfeeding protects infants from antibiotic-resistant bacteria
November 20, 2018 - AI matched, outperformed radiologists in screening X-rays for certain diseases | News Center
November 20, 2018 - Adolescents increasingly choose marijuana over cigarettes, alcohol
November 20, 2018 - World’s first medical imaging scanner produces diagnostic scan of the whole human body
November 20, 2018 - Cytocybernetics receives NIMH award to move into neuronal drug development
November 20, 2018 - ‘Unknown’ enzyme may be key to new treatment for inflammatory diseases
November 20, 2018 - Recreational drug may help people regain trust in others
November 20, 2018 - Researchers identify gene vital for post-stroke recovery
November 20, 2018 - Scientists identify novel target for neuron regeneration, functional recovery in spinal cord injury
November 20, 2018 - Potential new therapeutic approach developed for synovial sarcoma
November 20, 2018 - Skeletal imitation reveals how bones grow atom-by-atom
November 20, 2018 - Autism behaviors show unique brain network fingerprints in infants
November 20, 2018 - Location matters for inflammation clearance
November 20, 2018 - Towards finding a druggable cancer target
November 20, 2018 - Ultragenyx Announces Intent to Submit New Drug Application to U.S. FDA for UX007 for the Treatment of Long-chain Fatty Acid Oxidation Disorders in Mid-2019
November 20, 2018 - Cooling ‘brains on fire’ to treat Parkinson’s
November 20, 2018 - Less pollution could increase the average lifespan of Copenhageners by an entire year in 2040
November 20, 2018 - Abramson Cancer Center becomes the 28th member institution of National Comprehensive Cancer Network
November 20, 2018 - The plug and play time-resolved spectrometer from PicoQuant
November 20, 2018 - Breakthrough technology offers new hope to people with glaucoma, retinitis and macular degeneration
November 20, 2018 - New report highlights key focus areas to help cancer screening realize its full potential
November 20, 2018 - International experts to discuss strategies to maintain spatial orientation in old age
November 20, 2018 - Low-protein, high-carb diet may promote healthy brain ageing
November 20, 2018 - Scientists discover new inhibitor that decreases lung inflammation
November 20, 2018 - Participation project calls for relaxing research ban on germline interventions
November 20, 2018 - Karyopharm’s Selinexor Receives Fast Track Designation from FDA for the Treatment of Patients with Relapsed or Refractory Diffuse Large B-cell Lymphoma
November 20, 2018 - Arthritis by the Numbers: Book of Trusted Facts & Figures
November 20, 2018 - Drug homing method helps rethink Parkinson’s
November 20, 2018 - AHF commends the passage of global AIDS funding in the House, calls for swift approval
November 20, 2018 - The search for new psychiatric disorder treatments
November 20, 2018 - New research offers hope for simpler way to diagnose and treat cancer
November 20, 2018 - Study sheds light on the infection mechanism of influenza virus
November 20, 2018 - Storage failures of eggs and embryos gain a new perspective
November 20, 2018 - Buyers of short-term health plans: Wise or shortsighted?
November 20, 2018 - Study indicates that frogs in virus-exposed groups breed at young age
November 20, 2018 - FDA Alerts Health Care Professionals and Patients Not To Use Sterile Drug Products from Pharm D Solutions
November 20, 2018 - Asthma may contribute to childhood obesity epidemic
November 20, 2018 - Live probiotics can change existing gut flora and alter immune response
November 20, 2018 - Researchers to explore the enigmatic role of unstructured protein in regulating circadian function
November 20, 2018 - Many patients with adenomas do not receive colonoscopy within recommended time frame
November 20, 2018 - Drug used to treat PTSD does not reduce suicidal thinking, may worsen nightmares and insomnia
November 20, 2018 - In-person social contact may offer protection against depression and PTSD symptoms
November 20, 2018 - Routine HCV testing in correctional facilities can best identify and treat disease, say researchers
November 20, 2018 - Molecular DNA analysis could facilitate more accurate prognosis, treatment of aggressive brain tumors
November 20, 2018 - Breast Cancer Recurrence Rate Not Up With Autologous Fat Transfer
November 20, 2018 - Beta 2 Microglobulin (B2M) Tumor Marker Test: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information
November 20, 2018 - Could bariatric surgery make men more virile?
November 20, 2018 - Urine test to check if patients take their medications will save the NHS money, say researchers
November 20, 2018 - Study reveals impact of residual inflammatory risk on clinical outcomes after PCI
November 20, 2018 - RNAi therapy shown to alleviate preeclampsia
November 20, 2018 - Replacement of dysfunctional microglia has therapeutic potential for neurodegenerative diseases
November 20, 2018 - Forming 3D Neuronal Models of the Brain
November 20, 2018 - Shoulder ultrasounds could be used to predict diabetes
November 20, 2018 - SGLT2 Inhibitors for Diabetes Linked to Increased Risk for Amputation
November 20, 2018 - Stem cell transplant cements Arizona men’s father-son bond
November 20, 2018 - Scientists try to develop portable systems that can quickly produce biologics on demand
November 20, 2018 - Automating Data Capture and Image Analysis in Continuous Experiments
November 20, 2018 - New drug shows promise for treating people with peanut allergy
November 20, 2018 - Researchers develop novel mouse model to study immunomodulatory therapies
November 20, 2018 - “Britain must not go backward on antibiotic controls to appease US trade deals” – Jim Moseley, CEO of Red Tractor
November 20, 2018 - Widespread errors in ‘proofreading’ cause inherited blindness
November 20, 2018 - Reaping the benefits of living longer
November 20, 2018 - New Program Hopes to Make Early Detection and Treatment of ALS a Reality
November 19, 2018 - Artificial bone-like substance mimics the way real bone grows at atomic level
November 19, 2018 - FDA Grants Orphan Drug Designation To RGX-181 Gene Therapy For The Treatment Of CLN2 Form Of Batten Disease
Humans might not be altruistic ‘avengers’ after all, study finds

Humans might not be altruistic ‘avengers’ after all, study finds

image_pdfDownload PDFimage_print
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Picture this: You’re walking down the street when you overhear someone spewing nasty insults at a stranger. Would you intervene, even if it meant putting yourself in harm’s way?

While most of us would like to think we’d step in, even going so far as to punish the bad actor, new research led by the University of Colorado Boulder suggests that might not be the case.

The study, published in April in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, adds a new, contradictory perspective to the established wisdom that humans have evolved to punish people who mistreat strangers, even when intervening could lead to social costs.

In their paper “The Unresponsive Avenger: More Evidence That Disinterested Third Parties Do Not Punish Altruistically,” a team of researchers tested this scientifically accepted theory using a novel set of experiments. Their findings suggest that, on average, people aren’t inclined to selflessly punish people who abuse strangers, except for when they are faced with a very specific set of conditions in a lab.

“We’ve drastically overestimated the extent to which we think that third parties are willing to intervene on behalf of strangers,” said Eric Pedersen, assistant professor of social psychology at CU Boulder and the study’s lead author. “Our findings highlight how important it is for researchers to make sure they’re testing ideas in a multitude of different ways to make sure we get converging evidence from different methodologies.”

Using economic games

Since at least the early 2000s, psychologists have been studying whether humans evolved to altruistically punish people who act badly toward strangers. The most common way researchers have tried to answer this question is with laboratory-based economic games in which participants can pay to “punish” another participant who had purportedly harmed someone.

In those experiments, participants tend to punish others for treating strangers unfairly. The working theory is that humans have evolved this way in order to encourage cooperation in society.

“There has been lots of research suggestions that people are very, very willing to engage in third-party punishment when they don’t have a personal stake in the conflict,” Pedersen said.

However, Pedersen and his colleagues weren’t convinced that these economic games were the best way to test this concept. In essence, the researchers guessed that people were being influenced by the setup of the experiments, a concept known as experimental demand.

“If you ask people to focus their attention on the idea that a third party has been unfair toward another person, and then invite that person to invest a little of their own income in punishing that unfair third party, they will do it,” said Michael McCullough, a psychology professor at the University of Miami and one of the study’s co-authors.

“But, if any of those pieces are missing, you don’t get punishment. What we’ve found is that if there is such a thing as altruistic third-party punishment, it really unfolds under a very specific, very restricted set of circumstances. The horizon of real-life events to which that original finding is applicable is really narrow.”

Designing robust tests

The team decided to test the theory of altruistic third-party punishment in a new way, using five experiments that did not involve economic games.

The experiments varied, however, in that a person either insulted the participant directly, insulted a stranger or insulted a friend of the participant. Then, researchers gave the participant the opportunity to blast an annoying sound at the bad actor, letting them choose the duration and volume. In another experiment, participants simply imagined that a person had insulted them directly or had insulted a stranger.

Taken together, the findings contradicted past research, suggesting that people will punish others who have harmed them directly or who have harmed a friend, but will not punish someone who has harmed a stranger.

“The fact that people did not take advantage of an opportunity to punish on behalf of strangers, despite the lack of barriers to doing so, was striking,” said William McAuliffe, a psychology graduate student at the University of Miami and one of the paper’s co-authors.

“Participants had no reason to fear retaliation from the insulter and did not have to pay a price to punish, as they do in the economic game method. This suggests that most participants were truly quite apathetic that some other stranger was insulted in an unwarranted way.”

The researchers note that their study has limitations and caution that their findings assess average human behavior, noting that there will always be exceptional “heroes” who intervene on behalf of strangers.

“There are always individual differences, and our experiments are no exception in that regard,” McAuliffe said.”Experiments are not well-equipped to make all-or-nothing statements about human nature anyhow. They are better equipped to demonstrate what is typical under various circumstances. Exceptional behavior is better documented by studying real-world heroes.”

Training bystanders effectively

Though the researchers say that more work needs to be done to better understand third-party punishment, their recent findings have important scientific and practical implications.

In the psychology community, the paper challenges a widely held theory that scientists use as a starting point for other research and arguments, which points to the acute need for further study in this area.

“(The paper) casts serious doubts on these assumptions, and going forward, it’s important to use a variety of methods in addition to what we have used in this paper, such as going out into the field and using real-world data so we can get convergence on what might the best approximate answer,” said Pedersen, who started this research as a graduate student at the University of Miami.

In the real world, the findings reinforce the usefulness of a criminal justice system that doles out punishment on behalf of strangers. For people who create policies or programs intended to improve human cooperation and behavior—programs to prevent bullying in schools, for example—the findings suggest that people need help intervening.

Since the research suggests that stepping in on behalf of strangers is not a natural tendency, people need to be made aware of the innate psychological barriers they’re up against and given strategies for overcoming them. In addition, the findings highlight the importance of tools that don’t require direct confrontation, such as anonymous tip lines and ombuds offices, Pedersen said.

“We can really try to prompt people to be on the lookout for their own reluctance to intervene and find a way to do something,” Pedersen said. “We can incentivize people to step up in various ways by making it clear that there are benefits to standing up for others or highlight ways in which people can intervene without putting themselves in harm’s way.”


Explore further:
Why we sometimes hate the good guy

More information:
Eric J. Pedersen et al. The unresponsive avenger: More evidence that disinterested third parties do not punish altruistically., Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (2018). DOI: 10.1037/xge0000410

Journal reference:
Journal of Experimental Psychology

Provided by:
University of Colorado at Boulder

Tagged with:

About author

Related Articles