When uncertainty, ally of selfishness, works for good

A man reaches to retrieve a lost wallet on the sidewalk. Will he return it?
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Uncertainty is the ally of selfishness, most psychology studies show. For instance, people donate less to charity when they aren’t sure their donation will reach its target, and companies skirt safety regulations when it’s not certain doing so will harm employees. Uncertainty, psychologists say, provides cover for people to behave selfishly without feeling fully responsible.

However, researchers at Yale, City University of London, and University of Oxford have found an exception, they report July 9 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Their findings show that people tend to act with more generosity when they are uncertain about the impact of their actions on others. In divvying up experimental spoils, for example, subjects tend to be more generous when they are made uncertain whether or not the other party is poor and will suffer because of their decision. The researchers speculate that in this case uncertainty works by activating narratives that focus on harm, leading people to adopt behaviors that preserve others’ welfare.

The stories we tell ourselves and others to explain our behavior exert a powerful influence on our social decisions,” said Yale psychologist and senior author Molly Crockett. “When the link between our choices and outcomes is unclear, we can hide behind that uncertainty, minimizing our sense of responsibility for others. But surprisingly, when the uncertainty is focused on another person — for example, how much they might suffer — this seems to inoculate against selfishness.”

When there is the possibility an action might seriously harm another, people tend to err on the side of caution, she said.

The authors noted that social decisions involve two types of uncertainty: outcome uncertainty (i.e., uncertainty about the outcomes of decisions) and impact uncertainty (i.e., how an outcome will impact another person).

To explore how people responded to these different types of uncertainty, the researchers carried out a series of experiments that varied the information participants received about the likelihood of various harmful outcomes.

When participants were uncertain about whether a selfish choice would lead to, say, a financial loss or an infection for another person they behaved more selfishly. But when they were uncertain about the impact on the other person, they showed much more concern for them.

Our findings offer new insights into communicating uncertainty to the public, especially in contexts in which behavior that preserves others’ welfare is paramount, such as infectious disease,” said Andreas Kappes, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at City, University of London and lead author of the study.

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Bill Hathaway: william.hathaway@yale.edu, 203-432-1322