We all know that giving and sharing is not necessarily a child’s first response. Our parents and community teach us that giving is good.
But what happens though when we grow up? Is our first instinct still to be selfish, and it’s our years of conditioning that prompt us override that impulse? Or is our first response to be generous, and then we talk ourselves out of it?
David Rand, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, collaborated with evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak, who studies the evolution of cooperation, and psychology professor Joshua Green, who studies the cognitive basis of moral judgments, to explore this dynamic. In the study, volunteers were given money and played games where they could earn more, depending on the choices they made about whether to cooperate with others.
The researchers found that volunteers who made snap decisions about whether or not to cooperate cooperated more.
They wanted to dig deeper into this question. Some volunteers were prompted to think about a time in which their intuition/emotions guided them to a good decision, and some volunteers were prompted to think about a time when they had benefited because of rational thinking or a time when an emotional response had led them astray. The first set of volunteers who were primed to trust their instincts made their decision more quickly and cooperated more often. Volunteers primed to distrust their instinct and to think, took longer to decide and cooperated less often.
Digging deeper… Did how quickly the decision was made really matter? The researchers introduced an artificial time constraint. Some volunteers were instructed to make their decision in less than 10 secs and some volunteers told to take at least 10 secs to decide. Again, those who responded quickly were more likely to contribute and cooperate than those who took longer to decide.
But here’s where it gets interesting… Volunteers were asked to describe their interactions with people as cooperative or uncooperative. Volunteers identifying their experiences as uncooperative were not more likely to cooperate regardless of the decision making time. This suggests that past experiences are responsible for shaping our first response. Good experiences lead us cooperate more quickly and more often (which probably leads to more positive experiences). Negative experiences lead us cooperate less (which probably leads to more negative experiences).
For many people, our first response is to give. We’ve had enough positive, cooperative experiences with people that our first inclination is to say, “Yes.” But we can talk ourselves out of it. It doesn’t take long for our brains to step in with little thoughts like…
- If I give, I might look silly.
- I might make a bad decision.
- Other people may not give.
Ignore these little thoughts in your head. It’s fear talking. Give, because your life experience has taught you that people are good more often than bad. Give, because your first response reflects who you really are and how you want the world to be.