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Prosocial apathy for helping others when effort is required

Nature Human Behaviour volume 1, Article number: 0131 (2017) | Download Citation

Abstract

Prosocial acts—those that are costly to ourselves but benefit others—are a central component of human coexistence1,​2,​3. While the financial and moral costs of prosocial behaviours are well understood4,​5,​6, everyday prosocial acts do not typically come at such costs. Instead, they require effort. Here, using computational modelling of an effort-based task, we show that people are prosocially apathetic. They are less willing to choose to initiate highly effortful acts that benefit others compared with those benefitting themselves. Moreover, even when choosing to initiate effortful prosocial acts, people exhibit superficiality, exerting less force into the actions that benefit others than those that benefit themselves. These findings were replicated, and were present whether the other person was anonymous or not, and when choices were made to earn rewards or avoid losses. Importantly, the least prosocially motivated people had higher subclinical levels of psychopathy and social apathy. Thus, although people sometimes ‘help out’, they are less willing to benefit others and are sometimes ‘superficially prosocial’, which may characterize everyday prosociality and its disruption in social disorders.

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Acknowledgements

We thank C. Neumann for his help and advice with regard to the self-report psychopathy scale. We also thank all members of the Cognitive Neurology Research Group for their assistance as experimental confederates. This work was supported by a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Anniversary Future Leader Fellowship (BB/M013596/1) to M.A.J.A. and a Wellcome Trust Principal Fellowship and the National Institute for Health Research Oxford Biomedical Centre to M.Husain. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Author notes

    • Masud Husain
    •  & Matthew A. J. Apps

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3PH, UK.

    • Patricia L. Lockwood
    • , Mathilde Hamonet
    • , Samuel H. Zhang
    • , Anya Ratnavel
    • , Florentine U. Salmony
    • , Masud Husain
    •  & Matthew A. J. Apps
  2. Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 9DU, UK.

    • Masud Husain

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Contributions

P.L.L., M.A.J.A. and M.Husain designed the study, P.L.L., M.Hamonet, S.H.Z., A.R, F.U.S. and M.A.J.A. collected the data, P.L.L. and M.A.J.A. analysed the data, and P.L.L., M.A.J.A. and M.Husain wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Patricia L. Lockwood.

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    Supplementary Figures 1 and 2, Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary References.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0131

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