Letter

Social discounting and distance perceptions in costly altruism

  • Nature Human Behaviour 1, Article number: 0100 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0100
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Abstract

Extraordinary acts of altruism towards strangers represent puzzling phenomena not easily explained by dominant biological models of altruism, such as kin selection and reciprocity1,​2,​3. These theories stipulate that genetically or socially close others should be the beneficiaries of costly generosity4,5. Extraordinary altruists exhibit increased empathic sensitivity and a fast, intuitive decision-making style6,7, but no clear explanation yet exists for the most perplexing feature of these altruists, which is that they incur significant risks to benefit strangers5. Here, we considered two related proximal mechanisms—social discounting (valuational) and social distancing (perceptual)—that have been proposed to explain why costly help is preferentially given to close others. We hypothesized that variations in one or both mechanisms drive costly altruism towards distant others. We show that extraordinary altruists exhibit reduced social discounting, with altruists discounting the subjective value of outcomes for socially distant others less than controls. Group differences in social discounting were associated with self-reported other-oriented preferences and could not be accounted for by variation in social distancing. These results suggest a psychological mechanism by which costly helping behaviour towards genetically and socially close others might be extended to unrelated others.

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Acknowledgements

We thank R. M. Veatch and L. Brigham for their assistance with this project, which was supported by a Templeton Positive Neuroscience Award and Templeton Award #47861 to A.A.M. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. We also thank the participants who contributed their time and energy to this work.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Psychology, Georgetown University, Washington DC 20057, USA.

    • Kruti M. Vekaria
    • , Elise M. Cardinale
    •  & Abigail A. Marsh
  2. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA.

    • Kristin M. Brethel-Haurwitz
  3. Department of Psychology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California 90089, USA.

    • Sarah A. Stoycos

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Contributions

A.A.M. developed the study concept. E.M.C. contributed to the study design. Testing and data collection were performed by K.M.B.-H., E.M.C., and S.A.S. K.M.V. performed the data analysis and interpretation under the supervision of A.A.M. K.M.V. and A.A.M. drafted the manuscript, and K.M.B.-H., E.M.C. and S.A.S. provided critical revisions. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kruti M. Vekaria.

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    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1 and 2, Supplementary Figures 1 and 2, Supplementary References.