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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Jul 25;114(30):7963-7968. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1706693114. Epub 2017 Jul 10.

Harm to self outweighs benefit to others in moral decision making.

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SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106.
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106.
SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106;


How we make decisions that have direct consequences for ourselves and others forms the moral foundation of our society. Whereas economic theory contends that humans aim at maximizing their own gains, recent seminal psychological work suggests that our behavior is instead hyperaltruistic: We are more willing to sacrifice gains to spare others from harm than to spare ourselves from harm. To investigate how such egoistic and hyperaltruistic tendencies influence moral decision making, we investigated trade-off decisions combining monetary rewards and painful electric shocks, administered to the participants themselves or an anonymous other. Whereas we replicated the notion of hyperaltruism (i.e., the willingness to forego reward to spare others from harm), we observed strongly egoistic tendencies in participants' unwillingness to harm themselves for others' benefit. The moral principle guiding intersubject trade-off decision making observed in our study is best described as egoistically biased altruism, with important implications for our understanding of economic and social interactions in our society.


altruism; decision making; egoism; morality; social cognition

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