Most People Elect to Harm Themselves Before Harming Others

A woman reaches out to support anotherIf you spend enough time on social media or watching the news, you might think the world is full of cruel and selfish people. A University College of London study has found that nothing could be further from the truth. The study found that, on average, adults would spend twice as much money to protect a stranger from pain as they would spend to protect themselves—even when the stranger would never know about this act of kindness.

Willingly Paying the Costs of Kindness to Strangers

To understand to what degree strangers are willing to protect and help one another, researchers evaluated 160 adults in pairs of two. Members of each pair were randomly assigned the role of either “Decider” or “Receiver.” The pairs did not know who the other member of their pair was. At the beginning of the experiment, researchers administered a mild electric shock to each participant to assess that participant’s pain threshold. Researchers then used this information to determine a tolerable shock level for each participant. This ensured that future shocks would be uncomfortable, but not intolerable. 

Deciders sat in a computer room alone, where they took place in about 150 trials. During each trial, they had to choose between money and shocks for themselves or the other person. For example, a Decider might be able to undergo 7 shocks in exchange for £10. The Decider might also be asked to choose between £10 and 7 shocks for the Receiver. Researchers told Deciders that, at the end of the study, the results of one trial would actually be used such that either a Decider or Receiver got real money.

Deciders’ decisions were kept secret so that there was no risk of retaliation or reward based on their decisions. On average, Deciders would pay £4 to spare themselves 20 shocks. When the Receiver was doomed to be shocked, though, Deciders doubled the sacrifice they were willing to make, giving up £8 to prevent the receiver from being shocked.

Because real money was at stake, the researchers believe that their results provide important data about how much people are willing to give up to protect others. The study also found that people with low empathy were more likely to harm others and themselves in return for money. The study’s authors believe this may indicate that antisocial behaviors could be due to insensitivity to suffering, not necessarily a desire to harm others.

Despite the optimistic view the study presents of human nature, the kindness of participants had its limits. When presented with the option to donate a portion of their winnings to charity at the end of the experiment, participants only donated an average of 20%.


Most people would rather harm themselves than others for profit. (2014, November 18). Retrieved from

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  • Jamie


    November 24th, 2014 at 3:05 PM

    There will always be good people in this world and there will always be those who are bad.

    The trick is to find a way to surround yourself with those who are selfless and giving, and I think that a great thing about doing that is that you will also see how this rubs off on you too and encourages you to be the exact same way.

  • Jade


    November 25th, 2014 at 4:00 AM

    I seriously would have thought that we would have been found to be more selfish than what this study indicated.

  • mary


    November 25th, 2014 at 11:12 AM

    You see that when it does not affect the individual pocketbook one is a whole lot more likely to be selfless than what they are when it comes to doling out their money.

  • betsy


    November 28th, 2014 at 9:04 AM

    Truly I am not sure that I buy into this.
    I think that there are a lot of people who want you to think that they are willing to make those sacrifices and look better to others but that in reality they are just as selfish as the next guy.
    If there are a lot of people doing what you think looks best for others I would be willing to be that there is some ulterior motive involved.

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