Asking people to use “your heart, rather than your brain” increases prosocial behaviors, study finds

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Apr 21, 2022, 1:41:05 PMApr 21
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Asking people to use “your heart, rather than your brain” increases prosocial behaviors, study finds


A recent study examined the effects of rational (“brain”) and affective (“heart”) decision modes, and individual differences in processing styles on prosocial behaviors, finding that affective decision mode increased prosocial behaviors. Processing style (i.e., intuitive vs. deliberative processing) did not predict prosocial behaviors or interact with decision mode. This research was published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making.

According to the Social Heuristics Hypothesis, intuition promotes cooperation. This hypothesis suggests that intuitive responding in social dilemmas is linked to prosocial behaviors, while deliberation is associated with self-interest. However, empirical evidence has been mixed.

Instructing people to rely on affect or reason has proven effective in altering cooperative behaviors in social dilemmas, while time pressure and cognitive load have not influenced prosocial behaviors. Further, there are individual differences in how much people prefer to rely on intuition and deliberation when making decisions. In this work, Manja Gärtner and colleagues provide “an experimental test of how decision mode and individual differences in processing styles jointly affect prosocial behavior in a range of incentivized social dilemmas using a large, diverse sample of the Swedish population.”

This study included a total of 1828 participants who were representative of the Swedish population in terms of sociodemographic characteristics (e.g., age, gender, geographical regions). Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups; a baseline (or control) group, and two treatment groups that instructed participants to make their decisions based on affect or reason. For example, in the affect condition, participants were instructed: “In this part of the experiment, please make your decisions by relying on your heart, rather than your brain.” And vice versa for the reason condition. Participants in the control group received no instructions.

Four manipulation check items assessed how much participants believed “they relied on deliberation, intuition, and emotions as well as how much the instructions made them think more about their decisions.” Participants also responded to the jellybean task, which has previously been associated with deliberative and intuitive processing style. It involves making a hypothetical decision between a large bowl containing 100 jellybeans and a small bowl containing 10 jellybeans.

Participants are told to imagine that they can draw one jellybean from behind a screen. “The two bowls are depicted graphically with a label below the large bowl saying ‘9% colored jellybeans’ and below the small bowl saying ‘10% colored jellybeans’.” The rational choice is to draw from the small bowl given it contains a higher percentage of colored jellybeans, while the intuitive choice is to draw from the large bowl as it contains a higher number of colored jellybeans.

Prosocial behaviors were measured using a series of incentivized choices presented in random order, including cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma game and the public goods game, trust and trustworthiness in the trust game, giving in the dictator game played with another individual, and giving in the dictator game played with a charity.

Gärtner and colleagues found a positive effect of inducing affect (rather than reason) by directly manipulating instructions of prosocial behavior in the prisoner’s dilemma game, trust game, dictator game, and charitable giving. The authors write, “the negative effect of inducing reason on prosocial behavior makes up a larger share of the total effect of the affect/reason-distinction than the positive effect of inducing emotion.” They also note that they should find an interaction between decision mode and individual differences if those who rely on intuition react differently to affect- and reason- inducing instructions compared to those who rely on deliberation. However, the researchers observed no systematic interaction between decision mode and individual differences.

Prosocial behaviors are key to addressing numerous issues around the globe, including poverty, health, environmental preservation, and the division of limited resources. The authors conclude, “Understanding the mechanism driving prosocial behavior is thus a central challenge. Here we demonstrate that an induced affective decision mode induced, but not individual differences in affective processing style, may increase prosocial behavior.”

The study, “Affect and prosocial behavior: The role of decision mode and individual processing style”, was authored by Manja Gärtner, David Andersson, Daniel Västfjäll, and Gustav Tinghög.





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