Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Generous While We're Watched

What drives human altruism? Is niceness a mirage?

Harvard scientists Terry Burnham and Brian Hare recently pit 96 volunteers against each other in an anonymous game where they can either donate money or withhold it. A community pot would yield more money for all, as long as everyone gave.

Half the subjects sat at a blank screen. The other half, however, sat at a screen with a big picture of kismet the cute robot. Interestingly, those staring at the nonhuman face donated 30% more than the others. Why?

Because we have evolved to assume that being cast as charitable will have favorable results in the long run. Even when it's only a fake human looking at us, one who really doesn't care. From the article:
Burnham believes that even though the parts of our brain that carry out decision-making know that the robot image is just that, Kismet's eyes trigger something more deep-seated. We can manipulate altruistic behaviour with a pair of fake eyeballs because ancient parts of our brain fail to recognise them as fake, he says.

Red Cross, Planned Parenthood, take note.


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