We are more likely to protect others than ourselves from harm, says study

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  • Human often choose to avoid harm to others over avoiding harm to themselves
  • A study concluded that this could be an inherent part of our humanity
  • While monetary incentives makes us more selfish, the possibility of physical harm to others makes us more altruistic

It's easy to understand how humans learn to avoid activities that cause them harm – but does that sense of self-preservation still dominate when others are at risk of harm?

Many studies have focused on the egotistical nature of humans, but a new study published in JNeurosci shows evidence that the opposite might be true – and that it can be easily brought to the fore.

Reward and the neural network

Researchers studied 96 men between the ages of 18 and 35 to determine which comes out tops, prosocial learning (to benefit others) or self-relevant learning (benefiting mainly oneself) when it comes to adjusting behaviour to avoid harmful situations.

They wanted to extrapolate whether humans only do good things for others if they have certain incentives, or if we also have certain empathetic personality traits as an inherent part of our humanity.

They also looked at which parts of the brain were activated during these decisions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and anterior insula.

READ | Covid-19: We need both physical distancing and social solidarity 

'Selfish' learners or not

The participants played violent and non-violent video games in order to "train" their behaviour.

"Our major aim was to clarify whether humans are actually 'selfish' learners, as suggested by previous evidence using monetary outcomes as learning signals, or if prosocial tendencies can trump egocentricity in the face of harm," write the researchers.

After video game training, they were paired up with a partner who was part of the research team – unknown to the participant – where they performed memory tasks that inflicted pain on either themselves or their partner if they got it wrong or were too slow to make a choice.

They were strapped to an MRI to scan their brain activity during the experiment. 

Participants also completed a questionnaire beforehand that assessed their empathetic personality traits.


The researchers analysed the speed and accuracy of the participants' choices and found that they made optimal choices when the chances of painful electrical stimulation were highly likely. Interestingly, though, they made even better choices when their partner was at risk of pain, instead of they themselves. 

"Participants were more sensitive to differences in subjective values when making a choice for the other person than when making a choice for themselves. At the same time, the degree to which participants updated their subjective values in response to outcomes did not differ between self-relevant and prosocial learning contexts."

In terms of empathy, those more likely to feel others' emotions were a lot more concerned about their partners, while those who become more stressed at others' misfortunes had a smaller difference between prosocial and self-relevant learning.

READ MORE | A non-violent society needs non-violent parenting

Protecting others

In the brain, they also found that those who made better choices for another exhibited increased valuation-related activity within the VMPFC and subgenual ACC, the precuneus, and the middle temporal gyrus.

"While these findings suggest a central role of the VMPFC in successfully learning to avoid others’ harm, they cannot fully explain the generally higher number of optimal choices during prosocial learning.

"We did not find higher average activity during prosocial valuation, precluding claims that our sample‘s better performance for the other could be simply explained by generally stronger VMPFC engagement."

Their research thus concluded that participants actually performed better when faced with a situation where someone else might get hurt. 

"Taken together, these findings suggest that humans are particularly adept at learning to protect others. This ability appears implemented by neural mechanisms that overlap with those supporting self-relevant learning, but with the additional recruitment of structures relevant in social cognition."

Real-life implications

Some of the limitations in the study are that they didn't include women, and the participants were told that their partner would see their choices, which could point towards a self-preservation of reputation and caring what others think of them – in essence, a selfish act. 

"In many real-life situations, minimising others’ harm and minimising self-harm are conflicting objectives, with examples ranging from in-vivo organ-donation to war. Further investigating how such conflicts influence prosocial learning would be of major importance for future research."

Previous studies that saw humans as intrinsically self-centred used monetary reward in their experiments, but when physical harm comes into the equation, humans are more prone to want to protect others than themselves.

When it comes to money though, you might be on your own.

READ | Many Americans will grieve parents, grandparents lost to coronavirus

Image credit: Pixabay

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