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* Greater Good Research Digests offer short summaries of recent studies on happiness, empathy, compassion, and more. Quick to read, easy to digest—we review the research so you don’t have to! Subscribe to the Research Digests RSS feed to receive future digests.


Why We Help Strangers

"Evolution of Direct Reciprocity under Uncertainty can Explain Human Generosity in One-Shot Encounters"

Delton, A.W., Krasnow, M.M., Cosmides, L., and Tooby, J. PNAS, Vol. 108 (32), May 2011, 13335-13340.

If we only help others because we expect them to reciprocate, why would we help someone who we may never meet again, like when we assist a stranded motorist or hold a door open for a stranger? To address that question, this study ran computer simulations of tens of thousands of interactions between individuals. These interactions occurred either in repeated or one-shot exchanges, where people could cooperate or act selfishly. The results suggest that people are inclined to cooperate, even if they’re not sure whether they’ll see one another again, because the costs of failing to cooperate with someone who we will meet again outweigh the costs of helping someone who we won’t. In sum, it’s better to help now than lose out later—a realization that might have been ingrained in our psychology through evolution. —Samuel Sakhai

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Are Two Heads Really Better Than One?

"The Cost of Collaboration: Why Joint Decision Making Exacerbates Rejection of Outside Information"

Minson, J. and Mueller, J. Psychological Science, publication forthcoming.

This study suggests that collaborating with others on a project might actually weaken our reasoning and problem solving skills. Researchers assigned participants to work on a task individually or in pairs, then measured their confidence in their work, the accuracy of their answers, and their willingness to revise their judgments. Participants working in pairs were slightly more accurate at first than those working independently, but they were also less willing to consider outside advice due to greater confidence in their answers. Once all participants were given a chance to revise their answers, the individuals’ final answers were just as accurate as those of the teams. The authors argue that managers should think twice about having people work in teams, since collaboration is more time consuming and group members’ reluctance to accept outside input critically impairs the quality of their work. —Brylyn Stacy

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