How do we discriminate between right and wrong? What are the mechanisms for executing moral actions? Why do individuals ever commit self-sacrifice? Why do we recognize and honor high morals and righteous individuals in society? These questions have occupied the minds of intellectuals throughout history, and continue to do so.
This article does not claim to provide answers about social traits or morality in general, but simply summarizes the findings of two recent scientific papers that appeared in the journals Science and Nature, describing interesting research on social ethics and moral behavior. The broader implications of the studies are left to the reader to reflect upon.
The article published in Science magazine presents a line of evidence that spending money on others makes us happier. The Nature article comes up with a – perhaps – more surprising finding: preverbal infants can evaluate social actions, and strongly prefer individuals who help others. The results of the two articles thus suggest that not only do we become happier by doing good to others, but we also feel sympathy for other individuals who do so, even before we start talking.
Spending on others makes us happier
In order to investigate the effects of spending money on others, researchers at the University of Vancouver in collaboration with Dr. Michael Norton of Harvard University, first asked a representative group of 632 Americans to rate their general happiness, report their annual income, and estimate how much they spend monthly on: i) bills and expenses, ii) gifts for themselves, iii) gift for others, and iv) charity donations.1 The first and second items of expenditure were averaged to calculate an index of "personal spending," whereas the third and fourth items were used similarly to deduce a "prosocial spending" index. Data analysis revealed that significantly greater happiness was associated with higher prosocial spending, whereas personal spending was found to be unrelated to happiness.
Second, a group of employees who received a profit-sharing bonus from their companies were put to a similar test. All sixteen employees reported their annual income as well as their general happiness one month before receiving the bonus. Almost two months after the bonus, the same participants reported their general happiness and were asked to estimate how much of their bonus was spent personally or prosocially. The prosocial spending was again found to be the significant predictor of happiness, whilst the income and the bonus both remained insignificant.
Finally, the researchers designed experiments in order to further decipher the correlation between happiness and prosocial spending. To this end, forty-six university students were asked to assess their happiness in the morning, and were given $5 or $20 (a one time stipend) to be spent by 5 p.m. on the same day. Some participants were randomly instructed to spend the money on a bill, an expense, or a gift for themselves (personal spending condition), and the rest were told to spend the money on a gift for someone else, or a donation to charity (prosocial spending condition). After 5 pm, participants were asked to report their general happiness. The participants in the prosocial-spending group reported greater post-stipend happiness, with the effect of stipend size (i.e. $5 or $20) remaining insignificant. This work hence demonstrated that spending money on others promotes more happiness than spending money on oneself-a result that was apparently counterintuitive. Interestingly, when the conditions of the experiments were described to 109 students from the same university and they were asked their opinion on what condition would make them happiest, they were doubly wrong about their prediction: a significant proportion estimated that the $20 on personal spending would cause the highest happiness.
Preverbal infants can evaluate social actions
The second study by a Yale group describes experimental designs where preverbal infants (i.e. infants having not yet learned to speak) were made to watch animated events.2 (The group of infants chosen for the experiments were 6–10 months old.) In the first scheme (see figure, Scheme 1), a character (a red, circular object with eyes) tries to climb a slope, but fails in its first two attempts (A). At the third attempt, another character comes into the picture, either helping the climber by pushing from behind (B), or hindering it by pushing down (C). When the infants were encouraged to choose between the helper and the hinderer, they almost always reached for the helper (only 2 of 26 infants chose the hinderer). Interestingly, when the climber was made to look like an inanimate object as a control, infants did not show any preference for B or C. (Eyes were removed from the climber, and the climber no longer underwent self-propelling motion with the experiment unchanged in all other aspects.) This suggested that the infants did not choose the helper in the first experiment because they simply preferred the action or the shape or the color (further control experiments) of the helper, but instead their choice was purely social: With the eyes removed from the climber, the infants no longer identified the climber as an individual, and did not perceive the events as social interactions.
It is known that infants look at unexpected events for longer times.2 After the experiment described above, the same infants were subjected to a second test where their observation times were measured. In the display (see figure, Scheme 2), the climber sitting atop a hill initially goes back and forth (D) between the helper and the hinderer, and eventually approaches one of the two (E, the climber ends up approaching the helper; F, the climber ends up approaching the hinderer). On average, the infants stared at the display longer when the climber approached the hinderer (which is a surprising action), compared to the climber approaching the helper (which is an unsurprising action). These findings altogether suggest for the first time that the preverbal infants, although themselves unaffected as third parties (hence remaining unbiased), could make judgments about the value of a social act by differentially evaluating those who perform in positive and negative ways.
Social ethics is not only puzzling for philosophers and sociologists, but also for biologists because social traits are not inherently specific to humans. For instance, altruistic forms of behavior appear to be ubiquitous in nature and occur in creatures from bacteria to mammals. Even within a rapidly growing bacterial culture, a minority of cells are known to commit to reduced growth rates.3 This slow-growing subpopulation can survive an antibiotic encounter to regenerate the colony, providing an insurance policy for the whole population despite their reduced self-benefit. Towards the other end of the spectrum of living beings, vervet monkeys have watchmen that warn fellow monkeys in the presence of predators by attracting attention to themselves,4 increasing their own risk of being attacked. On first reflection, altruism contradicts the selfishness which is the natural outcome of the underlying assumption of Darwinian evolution, survival of the fittest. If only the fittest survive, according to natural selection, how can such magnanimous behavior continue to exist, when individuals who do not maximize their own interest should have been wiped out long before we can come to know them? Biologists are nowadays trying hard to reconcile altruism with selfishness, and altruistic behavior poses yet another challenge for evolutionary biologists (see a recent article in The Fountain for a detailed review5).
- Surely We have created human of the best stature as the perfect pattern of creation. (Tin 95:4)
- Those men and women who give alms and lend to God a goodly loan, it will be increased manifold to their credit, and they will have an honorable, generous reward in addition. (Al-Hadid 57:18)
- The Prophet (may peace be upon him) reported that God said, “I created my servants in the right religion but devils made them go astray.” Every child is born with the fitrah (an innate disposition towards virtue, knowledge, and beauty). Everyone is born in the nature of Islam. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Bill Sayoran is a freelance writer living in Boston. He can be contacted at
- "Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness", Science, vol. 319, 21 March 2008.
- "Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants" Nature, vol. 450, 22 November 2007. Videos of the animated events can be found at the Nature magazine website: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v450/n7169/suppinfo/nature06288.html
- "Is Bacterial Persistence a Social Trait?", PLoS ONE, Issue 8, August 2007.
- "Darwinism and Altruism: Is There A Problem?," The Fountain, Issue 64, July–August 2008.