Greed isn’t as powerful a motivator as everyone thinks

People will pay more to prevent harm to a stranger than to themselves, a study finds

The Joker hesitating to electrocute someone

(Illustration by Kagan McLeod)

Just when you thought people would choose money over helping another person (as Gordon Gekko said, “Greed is good.”), new research shows that sometimes people can actually be kinder than you expect them to be.

A new study from University College London and Oxford University diverges from the famous Yale University study from the 1970s by psychologist Stanley Milgram who found that most people would obey direct orders to send what appeared to be increasingly painful shocks to an unseen stranger. But this new research shows participants who were offered money to electrify a stranger were not so willing.

The researchers paired participants with unseen partners, and seated them in front of separate computers. One person was named the “decider,” which gave them the power to choose how many shocks to deliver either to themselves or their partner. The fewer the jolts, the less money, while sending more of them to their partner meant a profit that ranged from 15 cents to $15. The decider got to keep the profit no matter who got shocked. Surprisingly, the results showed people would sacrifice an average of 30 cents per shock to prevent jolts to themselves and 60 cents per shock to prevent jolts to others.

Key take-away: Gordon Gekko was wrong—even a stranger won’t screw you over for a quick buck.