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Uncertainty about the impact of social decisions increases prosocial behaviour



Uncertainty about how our choices will affect others infuses social life. Past research suggests uncertainty has a negative effect on prosocial behaviour1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12 by enabling people to adopt self-serving narratives about their actions1,13. We show that uncertainty does not always promote selfishness. We introduce a distinction between two types of uncertainty that have opposite effects on prosocial behaviour. Previous work focused on outcome uncertainty (uncertainty about whether or not a decision will lead to a particular outcome). However, as soon as people’s decisions might have negative consequences for others, there is also impact uncertainty (uncertainty about how others’ well-being will be impacted by the negative outcome). Consistent with past research1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12, we found decreased prosocial behaviour under outcome uncertainty. In contrast, prosocial behaviour was increased under impact uncertainty in incentivized economic decisions and hypothetical decisions about infectious disease threats. Perceptions of social norms paralleled the behavioural effects. The effect of impact uncertainty on prosocial behaviour did not depend on the individuation of others or the mere mention of harm, and was stronger when impact uncertainty was made more salient. Our findings offer insights into communicating uncertainty, especially in contexts where prosocial behaviour is paramount, such as responding to infectious disease threats.

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Fig. 1: A decision might cause a potentially negative outcome for another person, and the negative outcome may have a negligible or large impact on their well-being.
Fig. 2: Depiction of uncertainty manipulations across experimental conditions.
Fig. 3: Comparison of prosocial decision frequencies for the two game types and four receiver information conditions.


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This work was supported by a Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund grant (204826/Z/16/Z) awarded to J.S., M.J.C., N.S.F. and G.K., a John Fell Fund award to M.J.C., and by the Oxford Martin Programme for Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease. The work of J.S. for this paper was funded by a Wellcome Trust grant (104848/Z/14/Z). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The authors thank W. Sinnott-Armstrong, D. Batson, and members of the Crockett and MAD laboratories for helpful feedback.

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A.K. and M.J.C. developed the research concept. A.K., M.J.C. and A.-M.N. designed the studies. Testing and data collection were performed by A.K. and A.-M.N. A.K. performed the data analysis and interpretation in collaboration with A.-M.N. and M.J.C. A.K., A.-M.N. and M.J.C. drafted the manuscript and all other authors provided critical revisions. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.

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Correspondence to Andreas Kappes or Molly J. Crockett.

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Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Note, Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary References 1−9

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Kappes, A., Nussberger, AM., Faber, N.S. et al. Uncertainty about the impact of social decisions increases prosocial behaviour. Nat Hum Behav 2, 573–580 (2018).

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