Quick Intuitive Decisions Foster More Charity and Cooperation than Slow Calculated Ones

ThinkerEd Yong over at Not Exactly Rocket Science:

Our lives are governed by both fast and slow – by quick, intuitive decisions based on our gut feelings; and by deliberate, ponderous ones based on careful reflection. How do these varying speeds affect our choices? Consider the many situations when we must put our own self-interest against the public good, from giving to charity to paying out taxes. Are we naturally prone to selfishness, behaving altruistically only through slow acts of self-control? Or do we intuitively reveal our better angels, giving way to self-interest as we take time to think?

According to David Rand from Harvard University, it’s the latter. Through a series of experiments, he has found that, on average, people behave more selflessly if they make decisions quickly and intuitively. If they take time to weigh things up, cooperation gives way to selfishness. The title of his paper – “Spontaneous giving and calculated greed” – says it all.

Working with Joshua Greene and Martin Nowak, Rand asked volunteers to play the sort of games that economists have used for years. They have to decide how to divvy, steal, invest or monopolise a pot of money, sometimes with the option to reward or punish other players. These games are useful research tools, but there’s an unspoken simplicity to them. Sure, the size of the payoffs or the number of rounds may vary, but experiments assume that people play consistently depending on their personal preferences. We know from personal experience that this is unlikely to be true, and Rand’s experiments confirm as much. They show that speed matters.

Rand started with a simple public goods game, where players decide how much money to put into a pot. The pot is then doubled and split evenly among them. The group gets the best returns if everyone goes all-in, but each individual does best if they withhold their money and reap the rewards nonetheless.