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Think more, give less, study finds

How cooperative you are is linked to how quick you are to respond to a proposition, a new study finds. In a computerized game that involves contributing money to a common pool, people who took longer to think over their options were more likely to be selfish.

The question of whether humans’ automatic impulses are cooperative or selfish is “a basic question about human nature,” says David Rand, a Harvard University behavioral scientist and lead author of the new study.

Each person was placed in a group of four subjects and given 40 cents. Each subject was then asked how much he or she wanted to contribute to a common pool. The subject was told that whatever ended up in the pool would be doubled and then divided among the four players. So if everyone contributed their full 40 cents, then every player would double his or her money.

However, the game can reward greediness over cooperation: If a player donates nothing while the other three chip in their full 40 cents, then the stingy player will receive 60 cents from the pool and end up with a dollar total.

People who chose quickly contributed an average of about 27 cents, while people who decided slowly contributed an average of about 21 cents.

In later experiments, the researchers instructed some people to decide within 10 seconds and others to wait at least 10 seconds, to give them time to think more carefully. The same thing happened; fast people contributed more than people who deliberated.

The results of the researchers’ 10 experiments are published online Wednesday in Nature.

The researchers conclude that people are more cooperative when they think quickly. Psychology research shows that the faster choice is the more intuitive choice.

“If they stop and think about it, they realize, ‘Oh, this is one of those situations where actually I can take advantage of the person and get away with it,’ ” Rand says.

He thinks that teaching people to make decisions rationally could actually make them less likely to cooperate with others. For example, academic courses that train business executives to overcome their impulses might also make them greedier.

“We should try and keep our eye out for situations where we feel an initial impulse to do good, but on further reflection, rationalize and say we don’t have to,” Rand says.

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