When Helping Is Risky: The Behavioral and Neurobiological Trade-off of Social and Risk Preferences

Jörg Gross, Nadira S. Faber, Andreas Kappes, Anne Marie Nussberger, Philip J. Cowen, Michael Browning, Guy Kahane, Julian Savulescu, Molly J. Crockett, Carsten K.W. De Dreu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Helping other people can entail risks for the helper. For example, when treating infectious patients, medical volunteers risk their own health. In such situations, decisions to help should depend on the individual’s valuation of others’ well-being (social preferences) and the degree of personal risk the individual finds acceptable (risk preferences). We investigated how these distinct preferences are psychologically and neurobiologically integrated when helping is risky. We used incentivized decision-making tasks (Study 1; N = 292 adults) and manipulated dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain by administering methylphenidate, atomoxetine, or a placebo (Study 2; N = 154 adults). We found that social and risk preferences are independent drivers of risky helping. Methylphenidate increased risky helping by selectively altering risk preferences rather than social preferences. Atomoxetine influenced neither risk preferences nor social preferences and did not affect risky helping. This suggests that methylphenidate-altered dopamine concentrations affect helping decisions that entail a risk to the helper.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1842-1855
Number of pages14
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2021
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology


  • decision-making
  • neurotransmitters
  • open data
  • open materials
  • preferences
  • risk taking
  • social behavior


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