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Study: Decision making improves when other people's pain is on the line

People in a new study made better decisions when they were trying to avoid an electric shock for someone else, instead of themselves. Photo by NeedPix/CC
People in a new study made better decisions when they were trying to avoid an electric shock for someone else, instead of themselves. Photo by NeedPix/CC

Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Harm reduction is a powerful motivator. According to a new study, people learn better and make better decisions when trying avoid harming others.

Humans are often motivated by self-interest. For example, previous studies have shown participants are quicker to learn games when they're playing to win money for themselves instead of someone else.

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The pattern is reversed, however, when a stranger's pain is on the line -- harm reduction often supersedes self-interest -- according to the study, published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience.

"It has been found time and again that other people's physical integrity is a central motivator of human behavior," study lead author Lucas Lengersdorff told UPI in an email.

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"People's inherent aversion toward harming others, and seeing others harmed, has even been named as a possible basis for morality," said Lengersdorff, a doctoral student and lab manager of the Neuroimaging Center at the University of Vienna in Austria.

To better understand the effects of the harm reduction phenomena on learning and decision making, Lengersdorff and his research partners recruited participants to play an electric shock game.

Players were made to choose between two abstract symbols -- one with a high chance of triggering a non-painful electrical shock, the other with a low chance of delivering a painful shock.

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When researchers analyzed the performances of participants, they found players made optimal decisions, resulting in the least amount of pain, when they were making decisions that affected other people, as opposed to themselves.

The findings echo those of previous studies that showed people are willing to pay more to prevent other people's pain than they are to avoid pain themselves.

"Similarly, we found that people learn more efficiently for others than for themselves. Interestingly, we found that those participants who made the best choices were also those that reported high levels of affective empathy," Lengersdorff said.

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"This suggests a central role of emotional sharing in prosocial decision making: the more you 'feel what others feel,' the better your decisions for others become," he said.

During the electric shock game, participants wore an fMRI scanner, which monitored neural activity. The data showed participants utilized areas of the brain linked with decision making and empathy.

"We were very excited to find that prosocial decisions were accompanied by synchronized activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the right temporoparietal junction," Lengersdorff said.

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"The first brain area is known to be crucial for evaluating different actions we may take, while the second one is essential for social cognition, in particular perspective-taking," he said. "This suggests that prosocial choices arise in an interplay of brain areas responsible for valuation on the one hand, and 'putting yourself in somebody else's shoes' on the other."

Lengersdorff noted that the electric shock game allowed participants to help both themselves and others, but in reality prosocial behavior isn't always so clear cut. Sometimes, helping someone else comes with a personal cost.

In followup studies, Lengersdorff hopes to explore prosocial decision making under more complicated circumstances.

"Think organ donation, or stepping into a fight to protect somebody else," he said. "We are very interested in further investigating how humans weigh these self-protecting and altruistic concerns in decision-making."

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