The past several months have been difficult for all of us: the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep inequality and societal weakness, and the murder of George Floyd has shown us the worst that mankind is capable of. In light of these, one might think it’s easy to lose faith in humanity.
A new study from Ohio State University (OSU), however, has the potential to challenge that negative notion. Researchers found that people generally want to do right by each other, and want to help, even if it might not be beneficial or convenient for them to do so.
OSU sociologist David Melamed, together with his University of South Carolina colleagues Brent Simpson and Jered Abernathy, discovered that humans choose to be generous to one another, even towards strangers, and even in a scenario where it seems likely that one motivation for helping would carry more weight over another.
The study, titled “The robustness of reciprocity: Experimental evidence that each form of reciprocity is robust to the presence of other forms of reciprocity”, was conducted online among 709 participants. It was designed to help researchers understand prosocial behavior. It is also the first study to investigate how all the motivations to be generous might interact with one another.
“We wanted to see what the effects of those motivations would be when combined, because they are combined in the real world, where people are making choices about how generous or kind to be with one another,” explained Melamed.
But what exactly is prosocial behavior? Simply put by Melamed, “It means doing something at a cost to yourself.”
One example of this, he said, would be paying for the other person behind you at a coffee shop, and another more relevant one would be wearing a face mask in public. “It’s a cost to you; it’s uncomfortable. But you contribute to the public good by wearing it and not spreading the virus,” he shared with Ohio State News in a university press release.
Previously, scientists had determined four different motivators for people to be generous with one another.
- The recipient of an act of kindness is inclined to return a favor to the giver, by doing something good for them.
- An individual is motivated to do something good for someone they witnessed being generous to another person.
- An individual is more likely to do a good deed in the presence of people in their network who might reward their generosity.
- A person is more likely to “pay it forward” when someone else has done something good for them.
During the experiment, participants were given 10 points, and they were asked to decide how much of it to give to other people. Each point had a monetary value to the participants, which meant giving up a point would cost them something.
Then, the researchers created different scenarios that combined one or all four of the potential motivators for giving.
The results came as a surprise to the researchers, who previously hypothesized that the different motivations might overrun one another. For example, if an individual receives help, he might be less inclined to be kind to a third person, which Melamed says tends to be driven by a self-bias.
“But we found that all the motivators are still predictors of how much an individual is willing to give, regardless of how the four motivators are combined,” he shared.
To summarize the team’s findings, the study proposes that there is no single motivation behind why people would do good for each other. We are not solely motivated by reciprocation, getting something in return, or receiving a reward—humans are naturally inclined to be kind to one another.
“From an evolutionary perspective, it’s kind of perplexing that it even exists, because you’re decreasing your own fitness on behalf of others,” Melamed said. “And yet, we see it in bees and ants, and humans and throughout all of nature.”
No matter how hopeless things may seem now, keep faith in kindness. It is all around us; being good to each other is what made humans succeed as a species, and the same cooperative, compassionate, and altruistic traits that helped us survive will certainly get us further down the road.