Cendri Hutcherson
A new study by Assistant Professor Cendri Hutcherson finds that the things we pay attention to first may drive our generosity towards others (photo by Ken Jones)
Tuesday, July 28 - 2020
Don Campbell

A new U of T Scarborough study finds that when it comes to generosity, our basic assumptions about it requiring self-control to overcome our inherent selfishness might be wrong.

“With generosity, I think we sometimes have this view that we are controlled by instinctual biases, and the only way to override it is to exert some really effortful self-control,” says Cendri Hutcherson, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at U of T Scarborough. 

She says in a lot of research, psychologists have tried to see whether that’s true by forcing people to choose quickly, which in theory prevents them from exerting self-control.

“Our research suggests that maybe our behaviour is a little more flexible, that if you find it hard to be generous all the time, it doesn’t mean you are hardwired to be selfish. With even small changes in your attention, it can result in really dramatic changes in behaviour.”

Hutcherson and her colleagues looked at how time pressure influenced people’s willingness to be generous across two studies. Both studies measured and manipulated attention by tracking and controlling what people looked at as they made their choices.

They found it’s actually attention bias – the things that we see and pay attention to first – more so than automatic impulses, that determine whether people are generous in a given situation.

“By simply changing the information that people see first, we found we can dramatically increase or decrease their generosity towards others, particularly under time pressure,” says Hutcherson, an expert on decision-making and self-control.

Hutcherson says that these results may indicate that basic assumptions about whether generosity is automatic or requires self-control may be incorrect.  

When it comes down to it, generosity is still a matter of deciding whether you’re willing to sacrifice something of your own in order to help others.

Deciding whether to be generous requires people to know both how much they will have to sacrifice, and how much someone else will benefit, she notes. Her research finds that when people are under time pressure, they may not have time to look at both of those things. In this case, most people seem to prefer to look at their own outcomes, even if it means they’re ignorant about the consequences for the other person. This can lead to more selfish decisions than they otherwise would make.

But a small number seem to have the opposite preference: when under time pressure, they prefer to look out for the other person, and are willing to make choices without knowing how it will affect their own outcomes.

“Time pressure doesn’t reveal people’s automatic instincts, rather it reveals whether a person cares enough to spend precious moments figuring out how their actions will affect others,” says Hutcherson.

We don’t really know where those social preferences are coming from, she adds. Some research suggests that it might be a stable individual difference, but other research suggests that it might depend more on who is on the receiving end. People are willing to be far more generous towards a starving child, for example, or towards people who are attractive or belong to a particular racial group.

The study, which is published in the journal Nature Communications, received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). 

It may seem a little counterintuitive, that our generosity towards others is determined more by information we prioritize about our own self-interest than by our instincts, but Hutcherson, who is a Canada Research Chair in Decision Neuroscience, says it makes a lot of sense.

“When it comes down to it, generosity is still a matter of deciding whether you’re willing to sacrifice something of your own in order to help others.” 

She says that a host of considerations go into the decision, like whether or not you know the person, your past experiences, how much will it cost, do you have enough to spare, or how much will it benefit the other person relative to your sacrifice, just to name a few.

“Ultimately it comes down to even if people are willing to be generous, it’s always a matter of, ‘well, how generous can I be, and how much will it cost?’ People seem to be really strategic about making sure they can answer the most important of those questions before they decide.”