Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making

Molly J. Crockett, Zeb Kurth-Nelson, Jenifer Z. Siegel, Peter Dayan, Raymond J. Dolan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

216 Scopus citations


Concern for the suffering of others is central to moral decision making. How humans evaluate others' suffering, relative to their own suffering, is unknown. We investigated this question by inviting subjects to trade off profits for themselves against pain experienced either by themselves or an anonymous other person. Subjects made choices between different amounts of money and different numbers of painful electric shocks. We independently varied the recipient of the shocks (self vs. other) and whether the choice involved paying to decrease pain or profiting by increasing pain.We built computational models to quantify the relative values subjects ascribed to pain for themselves and others in this setting. In two studies we show that most people valued others' pain more than their own pain. This was evident in a willingness to pay more to reduce others ' pain than their own and a requirement for more compensation to increase others' pain relative to their own. This ? hyperaltruistic " valuation of others ' pain was linked to slower responding when making decisions that affected others, consistent with an engagement of deliberative processes in moral decision making. Subclinical psychopathic traits correlated negatively with aversion to pain for both self and others, in line with reports of aversive processing deficits in psychopathy. Our results provide evidence for a circumstance in which people care more for others than themselves. Determining the precise boundaries of this surprisingly prosocial disposition has implications for understanding human moral decision making and its disturbance in antisocial behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)17320-17325
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number48
StatePublished - Dec 2 2014
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Altruism |
  • Decision making |
  • Morality |
  • Social preferences
  • Valuation |


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