Harm to self outweighs benefit to others in moral decision making

Lukas J Volz, B Locke Welborn, Matthias S Gobel, Michael S Gazzaniga, Scott T Grafton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)


How we make decisions that have direct consequences for ourselves and others forms the moral foundation of our society. Whereas economic theory contends that humans aim at maximizing their own gains, recent seminal psychological work suggests that our behavior is instead hyperaltruistic: We are more willing to sacrifice gains to spare others from harm than to spare ourselves from harm. To investigate how such egoistic and hyperaltruistic tendencies influence moral decision making, we investigated trade-off decisions combining monetary rewards and painful electric shocks, administered to the participants themselves or an anonymous other. Whereas we replicated the notion of hyperaltruism (i.e., the willingness to forego reward to spare others from harm), we observed strongly egoistic tendencies in participants' unwillingness to harm themselves for others' benefit. The moral principle guiding intersubject trade-off decision making observed in our study is best described as egoistically biased altruism, with important implications for our understanding of economic and social interactions in our society.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7963-7968
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS)
Issue number30
Early online date10 Jul 2017
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jul 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Adolescent
  • Altruism
  • Decision Making
  • Ethics
  • Female
  • Harm Reduction
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Reaction Time
  • Reward
  • Young Adult

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