Science Says People Make Better Decisions When Those Choices Impact How Another Person Feels
While it's easy for individuals to understand what causes them pain or anxiety, whether it be physical or mental, it's harder to know what causes others harm. This can lead to selfish behaviors and a lack of consideration for someone else's well-being. Researchers attempted to understand what motivates us to act in our own self-interest versus the interest of another person. According to a team of researchers from the University of Vienna and University of Oxford, it is currently unknown if humans are as good at learning to avoid others' harm (which is known as prosocial learning) as they are at learning to avoid self-harm (otherwise known as self-relevant learning).
Using an fMRI scanner, participants in the study played an electric shock game. They chose between two abstract symbols: one symbol had a high chance of delivering a non-painful electrical shock while the other had a low chance of delivering a painful shock. The results revealed that the participants were better at choosing the symbol resulting in the least amount of pain when they chose for another person, rather than themselves.
"Our results suggest that humans are particularly adept at learning to protect others from harm," according to the study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Their findings revealed that human participants performed better during prosocial learning than during self-relevant learning, as they were more sensitive towards the information they collected when making choices for the other.
Making a decision that impacts another person is associated with activity between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction, a region that affects how we assess the emotional state of others. In short, when we're making choices that have the potential to impact how another person will feel—either physically or mentally—we tend to make better decisions.