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People do good because they think it’s the right thing to do – new research

18/07/2018
Academics at Royal Holloway and MDX publish research building on existing studies on the motivation behind good deeds

Researchers at Royal Holloway and Middlesex University London have published a paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, building on existing research on the motivation behind good deeds such as giving money to anonymous strangers.

The researchers, Mr Ben Tappin and Dr Valerio Capraro, note that classic research argued that behaving altruistically or prosocially in this way was explained by a desire to achieve particular social outcomes—for example, a reduction in inequity.

However, their paper provides an alternative perspective and finds evidence that individuals act altruistically because they perceive it to be the morally right thing to do, rather than because it achieves a particular social outcome per se. Furthermore, they find that preferences to do good are as potent as preferences to avoid doing bad, in determining the altruistic behaviour of participants.

“These results show that language can be a powerful tool to influence people’s choice above and beyond the economic consequences of the available actions. People tend to do the right thing and tend to avoid doing the wrong thing, and this can potentially be used to convince people to contribute more to society. Future research should explore the potential and the limitations of this approach” Dr Valerio Capraro, Department of Economics, Middlesex

The study involved a two stage experiment with 800 participants located in the US.

Participants began by playing the Dictator Game, a game standardly used in research in economics to measure people’s altruistic behaviour towards anonymous strangers. In this game, one player is given a certain sum of money and has to decide how much, if any, to give to another player who starts out with nothing.

During the second stage, the researchers divided participants into four conditions at random. In each condition, participants played a “Trade-Off Game” in which they had to decide between two allocations of money that affected themselves and two other anonymous participants. The four conditions differed only in the language used to present the two allocation options. The researchers used positive words such as ‘generous’ and ‘‘fair’ as opposed to neutral language ‘option one’ or ‘option two’, or negative words (‘ungenerous’, ‘unfair’). Crucially, across the four conditions, the allocations of money provided by the options were always the same.

The results showed that participants tended to choose the option that was framed positively or non-negatively in spite of the fact that the allocations of money provided by the options were the same across the four conditions. Moreover, people choosing positive or non-negative framed options in the Trade-Off Game were more altruistic in the Dictator Game, compared with people who chose the neutral framed option.

Taken together with other recent results, Tappin and Capraro’s findings question the classic view in behavioural economics that altruistic behaviour is driven by a desire for specific social outcomes (such as reducing inequity). Their results suggest that altruistic action is driven in part by preferences for “doing the right thing” as well as not doing the “wrong” thing.

Dr Valerio Capraro, from the Department of Economics at Middlesex University London said: “These results show that language can be a powerful tool to influence people’s choice above and beyond the economic consequences of the available actions. People tend to do the right thing and tend to avoid doing the wrong thing, and this can potentially be used to convince people to contribute more to society. Future research should explore the potential and the limitations of this approach”.

To find out more about Economics at MDX.

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