The less you care about others, the better your decision for them

People tend to prefer a smaller but immediate to a larger but delayed reward. Whereas the larger reward is a more rational choice to go for the immediate – even if smaller – reward brings with it the instant feeling of gratification. This role of emotions in decision-making has been described in almost all decisions we make for ourself. We do, however, not only make decisions for ourselves, but also often for other people – whether that is through giving advice or actually taking the decision for them. This describes the area of proxy decision-making, which can be very important (particularly when it concerns financial or medical decisions) but is much less well understood than self-decisions.

Curiously, the existing literature shows no clear pattern to indicate whether decisions for others depart from the decisions we make for ourselves: sometimes there is a difference in self-other decisions and sometimes there is not. Understanding the processes that drive other-decisions is the aim of my research collaboration with Richard Tunney at Nottingham University.

The first study we conducted was based on the notion that the reason we prefer an immediate, smaller reward to a larger but delayed reward is because we simply care less about our future self than we do about our current self. This notion of multiple selves described by Parfitt suggests that we care about our future selves only as much as about, say, a distant cousin. In other words, we feel distant from this future self and rather let the spoils be reaped by ‘me now’ than ‘me later’. This distance, we argued, could also hold the key to the differences we see in self-other decisions: sometimes there is a difference and sometimes there is not. We put this idea that treating ‘the other’ as though it were a homogenous, general concept to the test by presenting students with a series of questions in which they had to choose between a smaller, immediate reward now or a larger, delayed reward. They made these decisions for themselves and for a series of ‘other people’ who varied in how distant they were from the decision maker. We modelled this distance through the co-efficient of genetic relatedness, such that parents, brothers and sisters are closer than aunt or uncle, cousins or strangers. We also included ‘best friends’ in the ‘other’ category: they are unrelated like a stranger but socially close.

We found that participants were more likely to select a smaller immediate reward than delay for a larger pay-off both for themselves and for beneficiaries they were more closely related to. The decisions got progressively less impulsive and steadily more rational as the family connection became more distant. The most rational economic choices were made on behalf of complete strangers.

This is the first study to show that the identity of the third party in relation to the decision maker is a crucial consideration. Importantly it also shows that we are perfectly capable of making rational choices which give us maximum economical payoffs – just as long as we don’t care so much about the person who receives these payoffs. What gets in the way of making less impulsive choices for ourselves is that we want to get the immediate gratification. When the choices concern the benefit of a stranger, however, we give the most rational answers.

Ziegler FV, Tunney RJ (2012) Decisions for Others Become Less Impulsive the Further Away They Are on the Family Tree. PLoS ONE 7(11): e49479. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049479 Link to Full Text

This work was covered in the University News. You can read about it here. 



Countdown to new edition of Fundamentals of Development

The new edition of Fundamentals of Developmental Psychology will be out on 1st November!

I am really thrilled that it is popular enough to warrant a second edition. It is great to be excited about something, try to communicate that excitement and find that you have not missed the mark completely.

The reviews have been brilliant, encouraging and quite humbling so far. I hope that my students will like it, too!

Here are some of the things said about it. Full details on the Publisher’s website.

“Mitchell and Ziegler’s revised Fundamentals of Developmental Psychology is a delight. Whilst certain to become the standard text for many introductory and foundation courses in developmental psychology, it will also have a much broader appeal to professionals in health, education and social work. Throughout the book the authors develop their arguments utilizing a clever balance of classic texts and new research evidence to guide the reader through the big issues in developmental psychology. Their excellent style draws you in and makes learning fun.”– David Coghill, University of Dundee, UK

“This is an excellent introduction to the field of developmental psychology. I especially liked its coverage of developmental disorders, including ADHD, autism, SLI, and Williams Syndrome.” – Robert Siegler, Carnegie Mellon University, USA

“Mitchell and Ziegler’s Fundamentals of Developmental Psychology is an engaging introduction to the field of child development, current knowledge in the area, and the historical figures who brought us there. The addition of new chapters has added to the value of the book by introducing a greater discussion of scientific methodology, and by addressing developmental disorders.” – Karen Turner, University of Queensland, Australia

“This book covers all the basic topics one would expect in an introductory textbook of this sort. The authors are clearly experts in the field – their discussion of theory and methodology is detailed and appropriate, and the literature referenced is current. The book also contains chapters on specific topics that I have not seen in other textbooks, and I think the additions and revisions to this new edition have strengthened the book considerably. The result is a clear, thorough, and engaging introduction to the key ideas and methods of developmental psychology.” – David Peebles, University of Huddersfield, UK


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