1. Study suggests bonobos help strangers without being asked

    November 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Duke University press release:

    A passer-by drops something and you spring to pick it up. Or maybe you hold the door for someone behind you. Such acts of kindness to strangers were long thought to be unique to humans, but recent research on bonobos suggests our species is not as exceptional in this regard as we like to think.

    Famously friendly apes from Africa’s Congo Basin, bonobos will go out of their way to help strangers too, said Jingzhi Tan, a postdoctoral associate in evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

    A previous study by Tan and associate professor of evolutionary anthropology Brian Hare found that bonobos share food with strangers. Now, in a new series of experiments, the team is trying to find out just how far this kindness goes.

    The researchers studied wild-born bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    In one experiment, they found that bonobos will help a stranger get food even when there is no immediate payback.

    Sixteen bonobos were led one at a time into one of two adjacent rooms separated by a fence. The researchers hung a piece of apple from a rope just above the empty room, visible but out of reach.

    The apes couldn’t access the fruit or the rope. But if they climbed the fence they could reach a wooden pin holding the rope to the ceiling and release the dangling fruit, causing it to drop within reach of any bonobo that entered the next room.

    The bonobos released the fruit roughly four times more often when an unfamiliar bonobo was in the adjacent room than when the room was empty.

    What’s more, the bonobos didn’t wait to be asked for help, they just offered it. The researchers changed the size of the mesh surrounding the stranger’s room so that in some trials they were able to stick their arms through the openings in the screen to beg for the treat, and in other trials they were not. The bonobos helped just as often whether the stranger gestured for help or not.

    Bonobos’ impulse to feel for strangers isn’t entirely under conscious control, the researchers also found. In another experiment, they had 21 bonobos watch a series of short videos. In some videos, the apes saw a familiar group member either yawning or making a neutral expression. In other videos they watched complete strangers from the Columbus Zoo in the U.S. behaving the same way.

    Just as watching another person yawn can make you yawn, yawning is contagious in bonobos too. Previous studies suggest the phenomenon is linked to a basic form of empathy called “emotional contagion,” when one person’s mood triggers similar emotions in others around them.

    The researchers found that stranger yawns were just as contagious as those of groupmates.

    The impulse to be nice to strangers is likely to evolve in species where the benefits of bonding with outsiders outweigh the costs, said Tan, now a postdoctoral scholar at the University California, San Diego.

    Female bonobos leave the group where they were born to join a new group when they reach adulthood, where they form bonds with other unrelated adults they’ve never met. Bonobos, like humans, may simply be eager to make a good first impression.

    “All relationships start between two strangers,” Tan said. “You meet a stranger, but you may meet them again, and this individual could become your future friend or ally. You want to be nice to someone who’s going to be important for you.”


  2. Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

    September 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Toronto press release:

    A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic (human-like) animals.

    The findings are noteworthy since so much of children’s media — books, movies, video games, etc. — use human-like animal characters. But since many children in this study did not see these characters as similar to themselves, researchers say they may be less likely to translate social lessons from these stories into their everyday lives.

    “These findings add to a growing body of research showing that children find it easier to apply knowledge from stories that are realistic,” said Dr. Patricia Ganea, Associate Professor of early cognitive development at OISE, University of Toronto. “Overall, children were more likely to act on the moral of the story when it featured a human character.”

    Human versus human-like animal characters

    In the study, children listened to a story with either human or human-like animal characters who spoke and wore clothes. Each book taught children about sharing with others. Children’s altruistic giving was assessed before and after the reading.

    Overall, preschoolers shared more after listening to the book with humans. Children who were read the book with animal characters shared less after the reading.

    Researchers assessed whether children viewed anthropmorphic animal characters as human or not. Most children said these animals lacked human characteristics. Of the children who read the animal book, those who attributed human characteristics to anthropomorphic animals shared more after reading. Researchers say one of the reasons some children did not act generously may have been because they did not interpret the anthropomorphic animals as similar to themselves.

    Books with realistic characters lead to better learning

    Dr. Ganea says the results highlight that storybooks can have an immediate impact on children’s social behaviour.

    “Books that children can easily relate to increase their ability to apply the story’s lesson to their daily lives,” she said. “It is important for educators and parents to choose carefully when the goal is to teach real-world knowledge and social behaviours through storybooks.”

    Nicole Larsen, who worked with Dr. Ganea on the study as part of her master’s degree, agreed, noting, “Parents can play an important role in children’s learning by asking them to explain parts of the story and helping them see the similarity between the story and their own lives.”

    Children’s sharing tested

    In the study, children first had a chance to share some of their 10 stickers with another child. They were then read one of three books: a book about sharing with human characters; the same book with anthropomorphic animal characters; or a book about seeds. This book was used to check how sharing changed when the story did not involve sharing. After the reading, children had another chance to give away new stickers. The number of stickers shared provided a measure of children’s altruistic giving.

    Children were also asked to categorize different pictures of human, anthropomorphic, and realistic animals with either human traits or animal traits.

    To see if a story with animal characters is more appealing to young children, the researchers asked the children who read the seeds book to choose between the human and animal books.

    Overall, the researchers found:

    • Children shared more after reading the human book, and less after reading the animal book or the unrelated book about seeds.
    • The more a child attributed human characteristics to the anthropomorphic animals, the more they shared after reading the animal book.
    • Children did not prefer one type of book over the other.

  3. Oxytocin and social norms reduce xenophobia

    August 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Universität Bonn press release:

    How can xenophobia be reduced and altruism strengthened? Researchers at University Hospital Bonn have shown in a new study that the bonding hormone oxytocin together with social norms significantly increases the willingness to donate money to refugees in need, even in people who tend to have a skeptical attitude towards migrants. The results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

    We tend to be more altruistic to our own family and friends than to perfect strangers. The recent migration of Middle Eastern refugees into European societies has further magnified the issue, with a large divide in society between people who do and do not support the refugees. “This is partly due to evolution: Only through solidarity and cooperation within one’s own group was it possible to raise children and survive when competing against unknown and rivaling groups for scarce resources in pre-civilized times,” explains Prof. Rene Hurlemann from the Department of Psychiatry, University of Bonn Medical Center. However, this is diametrically opposed to the parable of the Good Samaritan, which serves as an example of selfless altruism by describing a Samaritan who incurs personal costs to help a stranger in need. “From a neurobiological perspective, the basis of xenophobia and altruism is not yet precisely understood,” says Hurlemann.

    Under the psychiatrist’s supervision, a team of researchers at the University of Bonn, the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa (USA), and the University of Lübeck conducted three experiments in which they tested a total of 183 subjects, who were all German natives. In the Laboratory for Experimental Economics (BonnEconLab) at the University of Bonn, they completed a donation task on a computer. The donation task included 50 authentic case vignettes describing the personal needs of poor people, 25 of which were portrayed as local people in need, while the other 25 people were portrayed as refugees.

    With an endowment of 50 euros, the participants could decide for each individual case whether they wanted to donate a sum between zero and one euro. The test subjects were allowed to keep any money that was not donated. “We were surprised that the participants in the first experiment donated around 20 percent more to refugees than to local people in need,” says Nina Marsh from Prof. Hurlemann’s team.

    Questionnaire on attitude towards migrants

    In another independent experiment involving over 100 participants, the subjects’ personal attitudes towards refugees were assessed in a questionnaire. Then half of the group received the bonding hormone oxytocin via a nasal spray, while the other half of the group received a placebo before they were exposed to the donation task established in the first experiment: again the participants decided how much of their 50 euros they wanted to donate to locals or refugees.

    Under the influence of oxytocin, the individuals who tended to show a positive attitude towards refugees doubled their donations to both the locals and the refugees. However, oxytocin had no effect in individuals who expressed a rather defensive attitude towards migrants: In those participants, the tendency to donate was very low to locals and refugees alike. “Oxytocin clearly increases generosity towards those in need, however, if this altruistic fundamental attitude is missing, the hormone alone cannot create it,” says Hurlemann.

    Oxytocin in combination with social norms decreases xenophobia

    How can people who tend to have a xenophobic attitude be motivated to be more altruistic? The researchers assumed that the addition of social norms could be a starting point. In a third experiment, they thus presented the participants with the average donation their peers made in the first experiment under each case vignette. Half of the participants once again received oxytocin. The result was astounding. “Now, even people with negative attitudes towards migrants donated up to 74 percent more to refugees than in the previous round,” reports Nina Marsh. Through the combined administration of oxytocin with a social norm, the donations for refugees in those skeptical towards migrants nearly reached half of the sums donated by the group, which showed a positive attitude towards refugees.

    What conclusions can be drawn from these results? It appears that pairing oxytocin with a social norm can help counter the effects of xenophobia by enhancing altruistic behavior toward refugees. “The combined enhancement of oxytocin and peer influence could diminish selfish motives,” says Hurlemann. If people whom we trust, such as supervisors, neighbors or friends, act as a role model by making public their positive attitude towards refugees, more people would probably feel motivated to help. In such a prosocial context, oxytocin could increase trust and minimize anxiety — experience shows that the oxytocin level in the blood increases during social interaction and shared activities. “Given the right circumstances, oxytocin may help promote the acceptance and integration of migrants into Western cultures,” says Hurlemann.


  4. Generous people live happier lives

    July 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Zürich press release:

    Generosity makes people happier, even if they are only a little generous. People who act solely out of self-interest are less happy. Merely promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that makes us happier. This is what UZH neuroeconomists found in a recent study.

    What some have been aware of for a long time, others find hard to believe: Those who are concerned about the well-being of their fellow human beings are happier than those who focus only on their own advancement. Doing something nice for another person gives many people a pleasant feeling that behavioral economists call a warm glow. In collaboration with international researchers, Philippe Tobler and Ernst Fehr from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich investigated how brain areas communicate to produce this feeling. The results provide insight into the interplay between altruism and happiness.

    Even a little generosity makes people happier

    In their experiments, the researchers found that people who behaved generously were happier afterwards than those who behaved more selfishly. However, the amount of generosity did not influence the increase in contentment. “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice,” says Philippe Tobler.

    Before the experiment started, some of the study participants had verbally committed to behaving generously towards other people. This group was willing to accept higher costs in order to do something nice for someone else. They also considered themselves happier after their generous behavior (but not beforehand) than the control group, who had committed to behaving generously toward themselves.

    Intent alone suffices to cause neural changes

    While the study participants were making their decision to behave or not to behave generously, the researchers examined activity in three areas of the participants’ brains: in the temporoparietal junction (where prosocial behavior and generosity are processed), in the ventral striatum (which is associated with happiness), and in the orbitofrontal cortex (where we weigh the pros and cons during decision-making processes). These three brain areas interacted differently, depending on whether the study participants had committed to generosity or selfishness.

    Simply promising to behave generously activated the altruistic area of the brain and intensified the interaction between this area and the area associated with happiness. “It is remarkable that intent alone generates a neural change before the action is actually implemented,” says Tobler.

    Benefit from the promise to behave generously

    “Promising to behave generously could be used as a strategy to reinforce the desired behavior, on the one hand, and to feel happier, on the other,” says Tobler. His co-author Soyoung Park adds: “There are still some open questions, such as: Can communication between these brain regions be trained and strengthened? If so, how? And, does the effect last when it is used deliberately, that is, if a person only behaves generously in order to feel happier?”

    About the experiment

    At the beginning of the experiment, the 50 participants were promised a sum of money that they would receive in the next few weeks and were supposed to spend. Half of the study participants committed to spending the money on someone they knew (experimental group, promise of generosity), while the other half committed to spending the money on themselves (control group).

    Subsequently, all of the study participants made a series of decisions concerning generous behavior, namely, whether to giving somebody who is close to them a gift of money. The size of the gift and the cost thereof varied: One could, for example, give the other person five francs at a cost of two francs. Or give twenty francs at a cost of fifteen. While the study participants were making these decisions, the researchers measured activity in three brain areas: in the temporoparietal junction, where prosocial behavior and generosity are processed; in the ventral striatum, which is associated with happiness; and in the orbitofrontal cortex, where we weigh the pros and cons during decision-making processes. The participants were asked about their happiness before and after the experiment.


  5. Study suggests parents who want their children to be kind are most successful in passing on all of their values

    July 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Royal Holloway London press release:

    Research published in the British Journal of Psychology has found that parents who want their children to have prosocial values are the most successful in instilling all their values in their children compared to those who promote selfishness.

    The collaborative study from Royal Holloway, University of London and the universities of Westminster, Vienna, and Bern assessed 418 German and Swiss families to see which parents most strongly transmitted their values to their children. They found that children whose parents wanted them to value helping, supporting and caring for others, were more similar to their parents in their overall value profile than those whose parents promoted striving for power and achievement.

    Like father, like son?

    Professor Anat Bardi from Royal Holloway’s Department of Psychology and co-author of the study explained, “Ours is a test of how far the apple falls from the tree, or in other words, how similar are children to their parents in the values they hold?”

    “We often take for granted ‘like father, like son’ and this is especially interesting when it comes to the inheritance of destructive values such as power-seeking and selfishness. We’ve now demonstrated that parents who foster more altruistic values, such as helping and caring more strongly pass on all their values down the family line,” she added.

    A first look at parent-child value similarity in middle childhood

    “This is the first time a study that examined similarity between the values of children and their parents has actually assessed children’s values when they are at the formative time of childhood, whereas previous research only asked teens and young adults to reflect back on their experiences. Therefore we are able to understand this key building block in the development of individual values, which are then taken forward through schooling and other important stages of value development,” added author, Dr Anna Doering from the University of Westminster.

    Kindness breeds kindness

    In explaining the results, the researchers suggest that parents who focus on prosocial values may be more sensitive to their children’s needs, thereby establishing a stronger bond with their children. The result of this stronger bond is that the children tend more to adopt the parents’ values (including values that are not related to kindness, like values of curiosity or tradition).

    By being more empathetic and supportive, these parents also demonstrate the importance of these values directly in their relationships with their children. As such, offspring are more likely to wish to replicate these positive experiences through their own values.

    In conclusion, Professor Bardi commented, “This research really shows that where parents nurture positive, supportive and altruistic values their children will also take these characteristics to heart. Where being ‘the best’ is among the dominant interests of the parents, children tend not to express such connection to their parent’s values. This research brings a positive message to the world: prosocial parents breed a prosocial next generation, but parents who endorse selfishness do not breed a selfish next generation.”

    “While there are always other influences on how we develop the values that make us who we are, there is no doubt that our parents have a huge role to play. How we then decide to take their values through our lives is, of course up to us as individuals.”


  6. Chatter in the deep brain spurs empathy in rats

    June 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Duke University press release:

    It’s a classic conundrum: while rushing to get to an important meeting or appointment on time, you spot a stranger in distress. How do you decide whether to stop and help, or continue on your way?

    A new study by neuroscientists at Duke and Stanford University sheds light on how the brain coordinates these complex decisions involving altruism and empathy. The answer lies in the way multiple areas of the brain collaborate to produce the decision, rather than just one area or another making the call.

    “The brain is more than just the sum of its individual parts,” said Jana Schaich Borg, assistant research professor in the Social Science Research Institute and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke.

    Using a technique that combines electrical monitoring of brain activity with machine learning, the team was able to tune into the brain chatter of rats engaged in helping other rats.

    They found that regions deep within the brain — those primarily responsible for emotions and basic bodily functions — are core to empathic decision-making. The specific role of each brain area is not fixed, but can change depending on which other areas it is communicating with, and what specific messages it is receiving, according to Schaich Borg.

    “We know that there are many brain regions that seem to do multiple things, sometimes at the same time, but we don’t know how the brain pulls that off,” Schaich Borg said.

    “One idea is that the function a brain region plays at a specific time could be determined by what it is connected to at that time, what other brain regions are doing at that time, and how brain regions are talking to each other at that time,” Schaich Borg said. “Some people have called this hypothetical phenomenon ‘neural context,’ and we’ve found concrete evidence for that.”

    The results clarify earlier conflicting findings on the role of specific brain regions, such as the insula, in guiding antisocial and psychopathic behavior, and may shed light on how to encourage altruistic behavior in humans.

    The study appears in the June issue of Brain and Behavior.

    Schaich Borg began this research as a graduate student at Stanford, where she was driven to understand the neurological basis of empathy in hopes of finding better treatments for conditions like psychopathy, in which people seem unable to experience empathy at all.

    “I wanted to understand what makes someone help someone else, or what makes someone refrain from hurting another person even when they don’t like them,” Schaich Borg said. Ethical and practical considerations can make it tricky to study the neural mechanisms of this type of decision-making in human subjects. So working with then-advisor Luis de Lecea, she devised an experiment to elicit empathetic decision-making in rats.

    Rats generally dislike bright lights, preferring to stay in places that are dark or dimly lit, Schaich Borg said. But she found that when given a choice, most rats would enter a brightly-lit chamber if it could prevent another rat from receiving an electrical shock.

    A series of molecular tests pinpointed which regions of the brain were active while the rats made these decisions. “The brain regions that encoded what the rat was choosing to do were the same ones we found in other studies to be involved in human empathy and moral decision making,” Schaich Borg said. “It’s fascinating that rats are using the same brain regions that we seem to be using, and it suggests that rats provide a promising avenue for better understanding the way the human brain makes decisions to help others.”

    But the results were also confusing in some ways. Specific areas of the brain, such as the amygdala or the insula, appeared to be increasingly active the more rats chose to help, but these same brain regions were also known to be involved in many other behaviors that had nothing to do with social behavior.

    To get a deeper view of how the rats’ brains coordinated empathic decision-making, Schaich Borg became a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Kafui Dzirasa, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke. Dzirasa had developed a way of simultaneously tuning into electrical signals from multiple points of the brains of awake, behaving rodents. Careful analysis of these signals can reveal not only which parts of the brain are activated, but also how different areas of the brain talk to each other.

    Schaich Borg applied this technique to her rats, recording the activity within 10 specific brain regions while also searching for signs of oscillatory “coherence” or communication between each of the regions as the rats were making decisions about how to respond to other rats getting shocked. Collaborating with statisticians, she then used machine learning techniques to correlate the vast array of brain data with the rats’ behaviors.

    “We found that you cannot describe the behavior as well with single brain regions as you can by looking at coherence, or connections between different brain regions,” Schaich Borg said.

    The results help explain conflicting roles the insula has been found to play in human psychopathy and addiction. “Perhaps the insula facilitates certain social behaviors when it is talking a group of brain regions in one way, but inhibits those same behaviors when it is talking to the same brain regions in a different way,” Schaich Borg said.

    “Our results confirm that if you just look at one brain region at a time, you likely will not be getting the full story of how the mind works,” she said. “To understand how the brain coordinates complex behaviors — especially social behaviors — we likely have to look at the changing inputs and outputs of individual regions in different situations.”


  7. Study suggests people tend to become more generous as they age

    June 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the National University of Singapore press release:

    People tend to become more generous as they age. This certainly holds true when it comes to helping strangers, according to a recent study by researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Findings from the study showed that while the older adults treat their kin and friends the same as younger adults do, the elderly donate more to strangers than younger adults, even when their generosity is unlikely to be reciprocated.

    “Greater generosity was observed among senior citizens possibly because as people become older, their values shift away from purely personal interests to more enduring sources of meaning found in their communities,” explained Assistant Professor Yu Rongjun, who led the study. Asst Prof Yu is from the Department of Psychology at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, as well as the Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology at NUS.

    The research results were first reported online in Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences on 5 April 2017.

    Generosity towards strangers is a function of age

    Studies have shown that as people age, they are inclined to volunteer more frequently, are more attentive to ecological concerns, and are less interested in becoming rich. However, there is a lack of understanding of the core motive behind such altruistic behaviour. The team led by Asst Prof Yu sought to address this knowledge gap by looking at how social relationships with others influence how much older adults donate in comparison with younger adults.

    The study, which was conducted from March 2016 to January 2017, involved 78 adults in Singapore. 39 of them were older adults with an average age of 70, while the other 39 were younger adults who were about 23 years old.

    The NUS research team employed a framework known as social discounting to quantify generosity towards people. The framework works on the principle that people treat those they are closer with better than those whom they are more distantly acquainted, and much better than total strangers. The participants had to rate how close they were to people in their social environment, and the amount of money they would give to each respective person. Using a computational model, the NUS research team calculated the amount of money that the participants are willing to give to another person as a function of social distance.

    The results revealed that both younger and older adults are equally generous to people who are close to them, such as family members or close friends. However, senior citizens are more generous to those who are more socially distant, such as total strangers, and the seniors’ level of generosity does not decrease with distance as quickly as that of the younger adults. In addition, older adults are more likely to forgo their resources to strangers even when their generosity is unlikely to be reciprocated.

    Dr Narun Pornpattananangkul, the first author of the research paper, said, “In psychology, the motivation to contribute to the greater good is known as an “ego-transcending” motivation. In our earlier work, we found that there is an enhancement of this motivation after people received oxytocin, a hormone related to maternal love and trust. In this study, we found a similar pattern of an ego-transcending motivation among the older adults, as if the older adults received oxytocin to boost their generosity. We speculate that age-related changes at the neurobiological level may account for this change in generosity.” Dr Pornpattananangkul is a research fellow from the Department of Psychology at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

    Asst Prof Yu added, “Our findings shed light on the age-related changes among the elderly, and provide an understanding of why they are more inclined to lend a helping hand to strangers. Providing older adults with more opportunities to help others is not only beneficial to our society, but it might also be a boon to the well-being of older adults themselves. Future studies with direct well-being measures should further examine this hypothesis.”

    Future studies to examine neural mechanisms involved in decision making

    To further their understanding on how decision making shifts among the elderly, Asst Prof Yu and his team at NUS are embarking on studies to examine the neural mechanisms underlying the changes in decision making by using brain-imaging technologies. Research findings from these studies have the potential to be translated into effective intervention programmes to promote healthy ageing, and may help tackle age-related conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, which are often characterised by deficits in decision making.


  8. Study suggests sharing voluntarily makes young kids happy

    June 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    If humans are primarily motivated by self-interest, as traditional economic theory claims, why do we sometimes perform acts of generosity that don’t yield us any material benefits? Indeed, such altruistic behavior may sometimes even come at a personal cost. So, why do we like to give? Because, it turns out, sharing makes us happy. And because we feel happy, we want to share more, explaining why psychologists consistently find that people like to “give” more than they like to “have.”

    But do we still enjoy the emotional benefits of sharing if it is not entirely voluntary, but obligated by social norms? Dr. Zhen Wu and colleagues examined this question in a group of preschool children in China, and reported their findings in Frontiers in Psychology. This study is especially intriguing since little children are often encouraged to share, but very little is known about whether they benefit emotionally from such sharing.

    In this study, Wu and colleagues compared positive facial expressions (as a measure of happiness) in 3- and 5-year old children who performed a sharing task, which consisted of sharing stickers with their peers. The experiment was set up such that the children were in two sharing groups: one group that shared voluntarily, and the other because they felt obligated to do so.

    Both 3- and 5-year olds shared more when they were obligated to share than when it was voluntary. However, such obligated sharing did not make them happy. Interestingly, both 3- and 5-year olds showed greater happiness when they gave stickers away voluntarily, than when they kept them for themselves. “So, it seems that the motivation to give does count,” explains Dr. Wu, “and it also suggests that it is unrealistic to expect a very young child to share under pressure and be happy about it!”

    These findings provide fascinating insights into the psychology of preschool age children, and the first evidence that sharing under social norms is less emotionally rewarding than sharing voluntarily. Dr. Wu suggests that preschool teachers might use these findings to guide how they foster sharing in their students.

    But the study is not without its drawbacks, cautions Dr. Wu, “for instance, it is difficult to entirely rule out the influence of social norms even in the voluntary giving mode. The giver might have felt pressure to give even when told they were not obliged to.” An important future direction would be to not only replicate these findings with more controls, says Dr. Wu, but also to understand how the positive feedback loop works. “We need to examine how an act of generosity leads to happiness that in turn prompts another act of giving.” And that is a very fascinating question indeed.


  9. Study suggests inducing negative emotions may sometimes have an altruistic aspect

    June 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    People may try to make someone else feel negative emotions if they think experiencing those emotions will be beneficial in the long run, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The findings expand on previous research by revealing that people may sometimes seek to induce negative emotions in others for altruistic reasons, not simply for their own pleasure or benefit.

    “We have shown that people can be ‘cruel to be kind’ — that is, they may decide to make someone feel worse if this emotion is beneficial for that other person, even if this does not entail any personal benefit for them,” explains psychological scientist Belén López-Pérez, who conducted the research while at the University of Plymouth and is currently at Liverpool Hope University. “These results expand our knowledge of the motivations underlying emotion regulation between people.”

    In other studies, researchers had shown that people may sometimes seek to worsen others’ mood for their own personal gain. Based on their own work examining altruistic behavior, López-Pérez and colleagues Laura Howells and Michaela Gummerum wondered whether there might be circumstances under which people would try to worsen others’ mood for altruistic reasons.

    “We identified several everyday examples where this might be the case — for instance, inducing fear of failure in a loved one who is procrastinating instead of studying for an exam,” López-Pérez says.

    The researchers hypothesized that prompting participants to take another person’s perspective might make them more likely to choose a negative experience for that person if they thought the experience would help the individual reach a specific goal.

    To test their hypothesis, they recruited 140 adults to participate in a lab-based study that involved playing a computer game with an anonymous partner, known as Player A. In reality, the participants were always assigned the role of Player B and there was no actual Player A.

    After receiving a note supposedly written by Player A, some participants were asked to imagine how Player A felt, while others were told to remain detached. The note described Player A’s recent breakup and how upset and helpless Player A felt about it.

    Then, participants were asked to play a video game so they could then make decisions for Player A on how the game would be presented. Depending on the experimental condition participants were assigned to, half were asked to play Soldier of Fortune, a first-person shooter game with an explicit goal of killing as many enemies as possible (i.e., confrontation goal). The other half were asked to play Escape Dead Island, a first-person game with the explicit goal of escaping from a room of zombies (i.e., avoidance goal).

    After playing the assigned game, the participants listened to some music clips and read short game descriptions that varied in their emotional content. The participants used scales to rate how much they wanted their partner to listen to each clip and read each description (from 1 = not at all to 7 = extremely). They also rated the extent to which they wanted their partner to feel angry, fearful, or neutral and how useful these emotions would be in playing the game.

    The players were awarded raffle tickets for a chance at winning £50 based on their performance in the game — participants were reminded that their choices might impact the other participants’ performance and, therefore, their own chances of winning the £50.

    The results showed that the participants who empathized with Player A focused on inducing specific emotions in their partner, depending on the ultimate goal of their computer game.

    Compared with participants who had remained detached, those who empathized with Player A and who played the first-person shooter game seemed to focus specifically on inducing anger in Player A explicitly and implicitly (i.e., by choosing the anger-inducing music clips and game description), while those who had empathized with Player A and who played the zombie game focused specifically on inducing fear (i.e., by choosing the fear-inducing music clips and game description).

    “What was surprising was that affect worsening was not random but emotion-specific,” says López-Pérez. “In line with previous research, our results have shown that people hold very specific expectations about the effects that certain emotions may have and about which emotions may be better for achieving different goals.”

    The study suggests that empathy led people to choose particular negative emotional experiences that they believed would ultimately help their partner be successful in the context of the game.

    “These findings shed light on social dynamics, helping us to understand, for instance, why we sometimes may try to make our loved ones feel bad if we perceive this emotion to be useful to achieve a goal,” López-Pérez concludes.


  10. Why do consumers participate in ‘green’ programs?

    August 11, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University media release:

    thinkingFrom recycling to reusing hotel towels, consumers who participate in a company’s “green” program are more satisfied with its service, finds a new study co-led by a Michigan State University researcher.

    Doing good makes customers feel good, and that “warm glow” shapes opinion, said Tomas Hult, Byington Endowed Chair and professor of marketing in the Eli Broad College of Business. But it gets more complicated when companies throw incentives into the mix.

    “Companies are increasingly adopting sustainability initiatives and ultimately these ‘green’ programs are intended to be good for the environment and also increase customers’ satisfaction,” said Hult, who is director of MSU’s International Business Center. “Our research helps strike the right balance between incentivizing customers to participate in green programs and focusing on the bottom-line performance of the company.”

    Hult and researchers from Cornell University and Florida State University conducted four studies in three service settings: restaurants, hotels and online retailing. They found the types of rewards offered by companies to participate in sustainability programs could affect satisfaction.

    The researchers tested two types of incentives: those that benefit solely the consumer (i.e. loyalty points) and those that benefit another organization (i.e. charitable donations).

    For green program participants, rewards that benefit another organization created the highest rate of satisfaction about the business.

    And for those who chose not to participate in a green program, self-benefiting rewards cast doubt about the motive of a program. That scenario offers nonparticipants an opportunity to rationalize their decision to not participate, and lack of guilt translates into feelings of satisfaction about the business, Hult said.

    People will interpret incentives in whatever way best suits their egos, he said. So for both groups to be happiest, a company should allow customers to choose between a reward that benefits themselves or another organization.

    Many managers, particularly in the hospitality industry, are reluctant to introduce sustainability initiatives that might negatively influence the guest experience, Hult said. But this research, one of the first of its kind, provides managers with guidance on how to best design such programs as well as best practices for “green marketing.”