Of Emma Young
You're in a food court full of food, looking for a place to sit. Just as you spot a common table with two free spaces, one much larger and more comfortable than the other, you realize that there is a person next to you with a tray and that they are looking for a place to sit. What are you doing? Running to take the best place – but appear selfish? Or let it have, so it seems generous – but do you eat your lunch in cramped pains?
A new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that you should not do either one or the other. Instead, you should say something like "Oh, go ahead – pick a place", and chances are that she or he will not only leave the best place for you, but also think that six generous.
Psychologists have generally considered this type of scenario as / or – it may be worse physically but to see its enhanced reputation, or vice versa. But this should not be the case, according to the results of eight studies involving imaginary and real-world settings, by Michael Kardas, Alex Shaw and Eugene Caruso at the University of Chicago.
Using a group of 300 online volunteers, they first explored the frequency with which people abdicated the decision to distribute two unequal elements (such as a "premium" bar and a "low quality" version) between them and a friend. Almost 70% said they would choose to abdicate the decision, mainly because they wanted to be seen as generous. In a real-world version of this study, which was conducted in a local park about pairs of people who knew each other, a roughly similar proportion – about two-thirds of the participants – chose to abdicate the decision, and when they did , the other person gave away the most precious item more often than they kept for themselves.
An additional online study of 310 people found that when the participants were informed in imaginary scenarios that their friend had abdicated their decision to share, they were much more likely to give the object of higher value rather than to hold it, compared to a scenario where they simply had to make a decision about who got what. The researchers write that this is consistent with the idea that abdication is seen as an act of generosity, which in turn requires generosity in return. (Further studies reported in the paper provide further evidence on this).
The effect of abdication was not observed only among friends. Participants were more likely to be selfish and to retain the high value option when they were simply told to decide what they would get or foreign. But when he was told that the stranger had first abdicated the decision to them, they were again much more likely to give up the high-value option than to keep it. This occurred in both imaginary situations and in a real scenario involving gift cards of different amounts.
Most of the data reported in this document has come out of imaginary rather than real scenarios and if all the discoveries that would be replicated in the real world is not yet clear. But the size of the effect in terms of percentages of people who decide to abdicate, and the choice to give away the most valuable element when you inform that the other person had abdicated, were similar in both types study, the researchers point out.
"So", they write, "abdication appears to be beneficial in more than one way: abdicators are not only perceived as generous, but also tend to receive the biggest slice of the cake". Or, as they also say "The abdication offers a unique opportunity for people to give up their cake and eat it too".
-How to give away your cake and eat it too: renouncing control requires mutual generosity
Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest