The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Happiness and Selfishness: A Paradox

Are happier people unselfish?

In the Dictator Game, a volunteer is given a certain goodie — raffle tickets, lottery tickets, money etc — and asked to divide it among a group of people that includes himself or herself. No one in the rest of the group has recourse to discussion or appeal, so the volunteer effectively plays “dictator.”

In this Hidden Brain Puzzle, you are given 100 lottery tickets and asked to share them with three other people. You can keep all 100 — and improve your odds of winning the raffle — or divide the tickets equitably. No one will know what you did, so this is entirely between you and your conscience. You are then asked whether being happy or sad makes it more likely for you to make a selfish decision.

I based this puzzle on an interesting experiment recently conducted by Hui Bing Tan and Joseph P. Forgas involving the Dictator Game. They measured whether volunteers reported feeling happy or sad and asked them to play the dictator game with 10 raffle tickets. They found that happy people tended to be far more selfish than sad people. Happy people were much more likely to hog the raffle tickets, rather than share them with others, whereas sad people were far more likely to think about the feelings of others. The result meshes with a growing body of work that suggests that while happiness feels great for us individually, it seems to have less than salutory effects on the hidden brain when it comes to thinking about the perspectives and feelings of others.

In an article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers write, “ The kind of mood effects on selfishness demonstrated here may have important implications for real-life behaviors in romantic relationships, organizational decisions, and many other everyday situations where decisions by one person have incontestable consequences for others. Interestingly, our results further challenge the common assumption in much of applied, organisational, clinical and health psychology that positive affect has universally desirable social consequences. Together with other recent experimental studies, our findings confirm that negative affect often produces adaptive and more socially sensitive outcomes.”

How does this research square with your own experience? Are you a more generous person when you are a sadder person?

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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