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

March 05, 2019

EVANSTON, Ill. --- 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 collaboration effect operates by creating a sense 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.
-end-
More news at Northwestern Now
Find experts on our Faculty Experts Hub
Follow @NUSources for expert perspectives

Northwestern University

Related Ethical Behavior Articles from Brightsurf:

Ethical challenges in cross-cultural research
A group of social scientists who conduct cross-cultural research are casting a critical lens on their own practices in the Sept.

What ethical models for autonomous vehicles don't address - and how they could be better
There's a fairly large flaw in the way that programmers are currently addressing ethical concerns related to artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles (AVs).

An ethical eye on AI
Researchers from the University of Warwick, Imperial College London, EPFL (Lausanne) and Sciteb Ltd have found a mathematical means of helping regulators and business manage and police Artificial Intelligence systems' biases towards making unethical, and potentially very costly and damaging commercial choices - an ethical eye on AI.

Virtual and augmented reality: warnings about the ethical dangers
Research on virtual reality started in the eighties, but it is now that good quality is available to the public and it can become a mass consumer product soon.

Mounting brain organoid research reignites ethical debate
As research involving the transplantation of human 'mini-brains' -- known as brain organoids -- into animals to study disease continues to expand, so do the ethical debates around the practice.

Preventing toxic work environments through ethical leadership
Recently published research from SDSU management professor, Dr. Gabi Eissa and University of Wisconsin -- Eau Claire management professor, Dr.

High society wants its fine foods to also be ethical
Truffles and caviar have traditionally been delicacies of the upper class, but a new study by UBC sociology professor Emily Huddart Kennedy and colleagues from the University of Toronto finds that free-range and fair-trade foods are becoming increasingly important among the elite.

Study: Journalists view co-workers as more ethical than peers
The University of Texas at Dallas' Dr. Angela Lee explored journalists' opinions about one another -- both their co-workers and their peers.

Is it ethical to use genealogy data to solve crimes?
Despite the popularity of online genealogy services, it is unclear whether users understand that their genetic information is available for forensic purposes.

Digging into new ethical issues around stem cells
Discussions concerning to the ethical issues related to stem cells have been ongoing for many years, but a special section in the latest issue of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine takes a deep look at some of the newest and most complex issues -- including the direct global sales of services and untested and unproven products marketed as stem cells.

Read More: Ethical Behavior News and Ethical Behavior Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.