60-Second Science

Human First Impulse Is Generosity

When people have to make a choice instantly of being more or less generous, their first impulse is toward cooperation. Sophie Bushwick reports

Are human beings inherently generous or selfish? A new study finds that when people have to make the choice instantly, their first impulse is cooperation—which indicates that generosity is innate. Only when they have more time to consider their choice do they behave more selfishly. The research is in the journal Nature. [David G. Rand, Joshua D. Greene and Martin A. Nowak, Spontaneous giving and calculated greed]

In the study, researchers ran several tests in which each participant in a small group received money and then had to decide how much to invest in a shared group fund. The more time people had to choose how much to donate, the less they gave. Subjects told they had to make a decision within 10 seconds even gave more than others who were told they had to wait the same 10 seconds before deciding.

Because snap decisions are based on intuition, the researchers concluded that generosity is the intuitive human response. But given time, we can reason our way to a more selfish decision.

This intuitive cooperation might be either genetically hardwired, or a cultural construct. Either way, next time I run a fundraiser, I'm bringing a stopwatch.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

[Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.]

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