We May Applaud Do-Gooders, But We Don't Want Them As Partners Or Friends

Stop trying to save the world for a second and pay some attention to me, please. WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock 

If you’re honest with yourself, really honest, do do-gooders make you feel a bit… uncomfortable? Guilty? Under pressure to be as "good"?

A new study with an impressive pedigree – Oxford University and Yale, no less – has revealed you’re not alone. People may indeed admire those who volunteer to go to war-torn countries at their own risk or who come into some money and give it all to charity, but they don’t actually want them as their friends or romantic partners.

It turns out, what we really want is someone who prioritizes us over over everything else.

“When helping strangers conflicts with helping family and kin, people prefer those who show favoritism, even if that results in doing less good overall,” said Yale’s Molly Crockett, senior author of the study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

To test this out, the researchers gave 200 participants a moral quandary to consider – is it better to help a friend or family member, or a larger number of strangers?

They were given scenarios and asked to choose what they thought the protagonist should do. For example, a grandmother wins $2,000 on the lottery – should she give the cash to her grandson to help fix his car, or to a charity dedicated to eradicating malaria through providing families with mosquito nets? Guess which one the majority chose.   

Another example was a woman who had to decide between cheering up her lonely mother by spending some time with her, or helping rebuild houses for families who had lost theirs due to flooding. Again, the majority chose cheering up the mother.

Now, of course, neither of these scenarios are morally wrong, it’s a take on the ethical dilemma of whether it’s better to sacrifice something or someone for the greater good, the Trolley problem being the most well-known thought experiment to explore this (although in today’s world, there are literal applications to this problem).

In this study, the researchers were curious about the cost of consequentialism, that the consequences of an action are the only standard of right and wrong to be considered, which mainly translates as people base moral decisions on their worry about how they may be perceived afterward.

So, it’s not that surprising that people chose to help the person they knew rather than the strangers, or that when asked to consider the protagonist of the scenarios as a potential spouse or friend, after it was revealed what the protagonist had chosen to do, the participants preferred the one that chose the close relationship over helping a larger group of people they didn't know.

“Friendship requires favoritism — the key thing about friendship is that you treat your friends in a way you don’t treat other people,” said Oxford’s Jim Everett, first author of the study. “Who would want a friend who wouldn’t help you when you needed it?”

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