Can’t We All Just Be Prosocial? A Guest Post
On Wednesday, I ended by suggesting that humans might just be good at heart. Sappy, I know, but nonetheless true (well, at least partially). For a long time, emotions have taken the rap for much of the dark side of human nature — violence, prejudice, greed. Yes, there is evidence to support each of these (some even from my lab).
However, just because emotions sometimes lead to undesirable behaviors does not mean that they must always be controlled for virtuous behavior to emerge.
A principal function of emotions is to provide an ongoing assessment of one’s environs and to constrain subsequent behaviors to increase adaptive responding. To use the classic example, the state that we call fear increases the likelihood of subsequent responses meant to avoid danger.
For humans, though, problems of predation or contracting communicable diseases may be no more important to flourishing than ones integrally involved in successfully navigating social life. Simply put, building social and economic capital is central to our success and depends on correctly dealing with questions like: “Who should I trust?” “Should I pay you back?”
Consequently, humans should possess a class of emotional responses that prod them to be “good partners.” As my collaborator Robert Frank has argued, many of these social emotions should help us control our greedy “id-like” impulses.
Now, the idea of such “moral sentiments” has been kicking around at least since Adam Smith, but supportive data has been hard to come by, at least until recently.
Consider the following experiment conducted by Monica Bartlett and myself. We brought people into the lab and set up 2 situations: One in which they confronted a problem which would require them to complete an onerous task and one where they didn’t face any problem. In the first case, a confederate, at some cost to herself in terms of time and effort, helped the participant solve the problem, which led to measurable feelings of gratitude. In the second, the confederate was just another person in the session.
After leaving the lab, all participants just happened to encounter someone asking for help on a different onerous task. This person was either the known confederate (labeled benefactor in the figure) or someone who was a complete stranger.
Looking at the first two bars, you can see that grateful participants helped the known confederate much more than neutral participants.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. This doesn’t prove anything! They may just be following a reciprocity norm. Fair enough. But look at the second set of bars. If it were really reciprocity, then no increased helping should occur when a stranger requests help, as participants don’t owe this stranger anything. Yet, those who were feeling grateful still helped more. Simply put, gratitude functioned to push people to acquiesce to requests for help — even onerous ones from unknown others.
Importantly, another study showed that if we reminded the participants before they left that they were helped by the confederate, they didn’t help the stranger any more than control participants. By binding the emotional state so saliently to one person, it couldn’t be misattributed as a cue to help another, thereby indicating that the increased helping isn’t just adherence to a “pay-it-forward” norm. Yet participants still were paying-it-forward.
To me, this represents a spandrel effect for gratitude. Although its primary function is to make you feel grateful toward benefactors and thereby repay them at cost to yourself, there is a side benefit at the group level. If someone else just happens to ask for a favor while you’re feeling grateful, your odds of agreeing are higher.
As work by Nowak and Roch has suggested, mechanisms for such upstream reciprocity are fundamental to the development of cooperative society. But then again, they could also make you a sucker to a good con artist! On balance though, such emotional responses continue to lead me to believe that at heart, we’re designed to be prosocial.