Empowering People through Behavioral Science

Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

In exploring the human experience of purpose, the NPP project has identified several core themes that are particularly significant, and which provide a useful framework for organizing our activities.  This page displays the content from this website tagged for one of those themes: Purpose & Prosocial Behavior.

Work on Purpose & Prosocial Behavior  is centered on the discovery of factors that attract individuals to prosocial behaviors like volunteering, teaching, and serving others.  Here, we ask questions like: To what extent are the factors that promote the initiation of prosocial behavior the same as the factors which best sustain ongoing prosocial behavior? When are “push” factors more or less effective than “pull” factors in initiating and sustaining helping behavior? See below for content related to our emerging insights.

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Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

Waste Management: How Reducing Partiality Can Promote Efficient Resource Allocation

Two central principles that guide resource-allocation decisions are equity (providing equal pay for equal work) and efficiency (not wasting resources). When these two principles conflict with one another, people will often waste resources to avoid inequity. We suggest that people wish to avoid inequity not because they find it inherently unfair, but because they want to avoid the appearance of partiality associated with it. We explore one way to reduce waste by reducing the perceived partiality of inequitable allocations. Specifically, we hypothesize that people will be more likely to favor an efficient (albeit inequitable) allocation if it puts them in a disadvantaged position than if it puts others in a disadvantaged position. To test this hypothesis, we asked participants to choose between giving some extra resource to one person (thereby creating inequity between this person and equally deserving others) and not giving the resource to anyone (thereby wasting the resource). Six studies, using realistic scenarios and behavioral paradigms, provide robust evidence for a self-disadvantaging effect: Allocators were consistently more likely to create inequity to avoid wasting resources when the resulting inequity would put them at a relative disadvantage than when it would put others at a relative disadvantage. We further find that this self-disadvantaging effect is a direct result of people's concern about appearing partial. Our findings suggest the importance of impartiality even in distributive justice, thereby bridging a gap between the distributive and procedural justice literatures.

Choshen-Hillel, S., Shaw, A., Caruso, E.M. (2015). Waste management: how reducing partiality can promote efficient resource allocation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109, 210-231. doi: 10.1037/pspa0000028

Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

The Collective Benefits of Feeling Good and Letting Go

Cooperation is central to human existence, forming the bedrock of everyday social relationships and larger societal structures. Thus, understanding the psychological underpinnings of cooperation is of both scientific and practical importance. Recent work using a dual-process framework suggests that intuitive processing can promote cooperation while deliberative processing can undermine it. Here we add to this line of research by more specifically identifying deliberative and intuitive processes that affect cooperation. To do so, we applied automated text analysis using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software to investigate the association between behavior in one-shot anonymous economic cooperation games and the presence inhibition (a deliberative process) and positive emotion (an intuitive process) in free-response narratives written after (Study 1, N = 4,218) or during (Study 2, N = 236) the decision-making process. Consistent with previous results, across both studies inhibition predicted reduced cooperation while positive emotion predicted increased cooperation (even when controlling for negative emotion). Importantly, there was a significant interaction between positive emotion and inhibition, such that the most cooperative individuals had high positive emotion and low inhibition. This suggests that inhibition (i.e., reflective or deliberative processing) may undermine cooperative behavior by suppressing the prosocial effects of positive emotion.

Rand, D.G., Kraft-Todd, G., Gruber, J. (2015). The collective benefits of feeling good and letting go: Positive emotion and (dis)inhibition interact to predict cooperative behavior. PLoS ONE 10(1): e0117426. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117426


Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

Time Pressure Increases Cooperation in Competitively Framed Social Dilemmas

What makes people willing to pay costs to benefit others? Does such cooperation require effortful self-control, or do automatic, intuitive processes favor cooperation? Time pressure has been shown to increase cooperative behavior in Public Goods Games, implying a predisposition towards cooperation. Consistent with the hypothesis that this predisposition results from the fact that cooperation is typically advantageous outside the lab, it has further been shown that the time pressure effect is undermined by prior experience playing lab games (where selfishness is the more advantageous strategy). Furthermore, a recent study found that time pressure increases cooperation even in a game framed as a competition, suggesting that the time pressure effect is not the result of social norm compliance. Here, we successfully replicate these findings, again observing a positive effect of time pressure on cooperation in a competitively framed game, but not when using the standard cooperative framing. These results suggest that participants' intuitions favor cooperation rather than norm compliance, and also that simply changing the framing of the Public Goods Game is enough to make it appear novel to participants and thus to restore the time pressure effect.

Cone, J., Rand, D.G. (2014). Time pressure increases cooperation in competitively framed social dilemmas. Plos ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0115756

Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

Harnessing Reciprocity to Promote Cooperation and the Provisioning of Public Goods

How can we maximize the common good? This is a central organizing question of public policy design, across political parties and ideologies. The answer typically involves the provisioning of public goods such as fresh air, national defense, and knowledge. Public goods are costly to produce but benefit everyone, thus creating a social dilemma: Individual and collective interests are in tension. Although individuals may want a public good to be produced, they typically would prefer not to be theones who have to pay for it. Understanding how to motivate individuals to pay these costs is therefore of great importance for policy makers. Research provides advice on how to promote this type of “cooperative” behavior. Synthesizing a large body of research demonstrates the power of “reciprocity” for inducing cooperation: When others know that you have helped them, or acted to benefit the greater good, they are often more likely to reciprocate and help you in turn. Several conclusions stem from this line of thinking: People will be more likely to do their part when their actions are observable by others; people will pay more attention to how effective those actions are when efficacy is also observable; people will try to avoid situations where they could help, but often will help if asked directly; people are more likely to cooperate if they think others are also cooperating; and people can develop habits of cooperation that shape their default inclinations.

Rand, D.G., Yoeli, E., Hoffman, M. (2014) Harnessing reciprocity to promote cooperation and the provisioning of public goods. Policy Insights from Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 263-269.

Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

Static Network Structure Can Stabilize Human Cooperation

The evolution of cooperation in network-structured populations has been a major focus of theoretical work in recent years. When players are embedded in fixed networks, cooperators are more likely to interact with, and benefit from, other cooperators. In theory, this clustering can foster cooperation on fixed networks under certain circumstances. Laboratory experiments with humans, however, have thus far found no evidence that fixed network structure actually promotes cooperation. Here, we provide such evidence and help to explain why others failed to find it. First, we show that static networks can lead to a stable high level of cooperation, outperforming well-mixed populations. We then systematically vary the benefit that cooperating provides to one’s neighbors relative to the cost required to cooperate (b/c), as well as the average number of neighbors in the network (k). When b/c > k, we observe high and stable levels of cooperation. Conversely, when b/ck or players are randomly shuffled, cooperation decays. Our results are consistent with a quantitative evolutionary game theoretic prediction for when cooperation should succeed on networks and, for the first time to our knowledge, provide an experimental demonstration of the power of static network structure for stabilizing human cooperation.

Rand, D.G., Nowak, M.A., Fowler J.H., Christakis, N.A. (2014) Static network structure can stabilize human cooperation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 17093-17098.


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