The commonly-held view of human nature, often put forth by economists, is that people are motivated strictly by self-interest. However, the intensely social nature of human beings suggests that people are not purely self-interested. Dr. William Cunningham (Ohio State University) attempts to shed new light on the age-old question of whether people are ever motivated to look after the interests of others (i.e., to think and behave unselfishly). Pilot data from Dr. Cunningham's lab have already shown, for example, that people who score high on measures of compassion engage in what appears to be unselfish helping.
Three studies will study the question of whether people are ever unselfish by (a) using a novel decision-making activity designed to uncover people's motivations and (b) an eye-tracking method that will directly measure visual attention. The studies will address three important questions: (a) For whom are people more likely to show concern (e.g., similar versus dissimilar others)? (b) Is self-interest a more automatic or fundamental process than concern for others? (c) What are the attentional and motivational mechanisms that drive these effects? In each of the proposed studies, compassion (and the absence thereof) will be measured to see whether automatic self-interest is a human universal, or if there are critical individual differences that may shift people from self-interest to a less selfish focus on others. For example, if people have to make decisions quickly, is self-interest more likely to dominate their decisions? Is this true even for people who are highly compassionate? Further, will the amount of time people spend looking at what could happen to another person predict how generously they behave toward that person? Answering such questions will yield new insights into the motivation to help others.
In terms of broader impacts, the proposed studies will facilitate the training of a wide range of students. As a part of this work, the researchers plan to refine and polish a new measure that will be made freely available to other researchers interested in studying altruism and/or self-interest. Better understanding whether and when people behave in a truly unselfish fashion could have important implications for understanding a host of important questions ranging from questions about helping strangers in distress to choosing careers in demanding helping professions such as nursing or firefighting.