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Prosocial apathy for helping others when effort is required

Abstract

Prosocial acts—those that are costly to ourselves but benefit others—are a central component of human coexistence13. While the financial and moral costs of prosocial behaviours are well understood46, 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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Figure 1: Prosocial motivation measure for self versus other.
Figure 2: Prosocial apathy when deciding to exert effort to reward others.
Figure 3: A model comparison robustly shows across two studies that a model with separate discount parameters for self and other best explains behaviour.
Figure 4: Reduced force when exerting effort to help others.

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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.

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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.

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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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Lockwood, P., Hamonet, M., Zhang, S. et al. Prosocial apathy for helping others when effort is required. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0131 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0131

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