Headlines Published on 28 April 2011

Title The more you dislike, the less you're willing to help

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Research on Collective Goods in Germany have discovered that people will help their fellow man based on how altruistic others are. In a nutshell, first impressions play a critical role in our expectations of people, and first impressions are hard to change.

Selfless acts trigger more cooperative behaviour © Shutterstock
Selfless acts trigger more cooperative behaviour
©  Shutterstock

Commenting on the findings of their study, Michael Kurschilgen from the MPI for Research on Collective Goods in Bonn said: 'This is particularly true when the impression is a negative one.'

Dr Kurschilgen, along with colleagues Christoph Engel and Sebastian Kube, assessed the findings of so—called 'good games'. According to the team, people that expect others to act selfishly actually are people that experience uncooperative behaviour from others more often.

Using past research studies as a template for their work, the scientists put the spotlight on social dilemma that could pique the interest of both social policymakers and town planners. 'We wanted to find out whether the "broken windows" theory held true in the lab as well,' Dr Kurschilgen pointed out.

The researchers said that under the broken windows theory, the 'minor details', including street rubbish or abandoned buildings, could trigger desolate—like conditions in any given district. 'Such signs of neglect give people the impression that social standards do not apply there,' said Dr Kurschilgen, highlighting the idea behind the theory that kick—started the United States' New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's decision to launch the 'zero—tolerance strategy' he implemented to clean up the city 20 years ago.

To test this theory, the researchers used public 'good games' that are usually applied in the field of experimental economics. They wanted to determine how first impressions influence people's behaviour as well as selective information.

According to the team, the games are based on the classic dilemma of self—interest and socially minded behaviour. A group of four players receive 20 tokens, which they either keep or give to a community project. Each player gets 0.4 tokens in return for each token they put back into the community project. If all 4 group members give their 20 tokens, they each get 32 tokens. So it is 12 more tokens for them if they invest in the project. If only 3 of the 4 invest their money in the community project, the 'selfish' player (i.e. fourth player) obtains 44 tokens. The selfish member therefore gains from the others' investment in the project.

'The public good game thus creates a social dilemma,' Dr Kurschilgen noted.

It is clear that the entire community would benefit if everybody invested in the collective, they said. But from an individual perspective, the 'free rider' wins at the end of the day.

Looking at Bonn and London, United Kingdom, the team said differences exist between the two. People in Bonn invested 82 % compared to Londoners who invested just 43 %.

'This is probably down to differing expectations of what constitutes "normal" behaviour,' Dr Kurschilgen suggested. People who assume that the others will act selfishly as well will not likely perform altruistic deeds either.

'From that point of view, Londoners have a more pessimistic view of man than do the participants in Bonn,' he said. On the other hand, a person will behave cooperatively or not depending on how they think the others will behave as well.

To make things interesting, the researchers disclosed the results of the London study to the Bonn group. The group reacted negatively to the information, investing only 51 % to the collective compared to the initial 82 %. It should be noted that this model did not work the other way around; good examples did not help make selfish people selfless.

'Our findings demonstrate that the core of the "broken windows" theory does actually hold true,' Dr Kurschilgen said. 'Faced with a social dilemma, people are guided to a very great extent by their original expectations of what other people will do, but they are also particularly sensitive to negative impressions.'

More information:

  • Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Research on Collective Goods

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