Deliberation may make individuals more selfish.

In a study published in early September, Yale psychology professor David Rand and graduate student Gordon T. Kraft-Todd GRD ’20 found that people who made intuitive decisions in a money-pooling game were more likely to act in the group’s interest. When allowed to deliberate for more than ten seconds, participants were more likely to act out of self-interest.

“Intuition will favor cooperation for a lot of people, but when they stop and think about it in these one-off games, they’ll get more selfish,” Rand said.

Researchers gave study participants 40 cents to keep or contribute to a pool of money shared by four participants. The contributions were then multiplied by a factor of “x,” and split evenly among the four members.

The study is a follow-up to Rand’s previous work, in which he developed a social heuristic hypothesis, arguing that people tend to cooperate in everyday life because it is socially beneficial. According to Rand, the new findings clarify when and how people apply this heuristic.

The researchers had three hypotheses, all of which their research confirmed. First, the study’s one-off social situation, in which no social repercussions might occur, made people more likely to act selfishly.

“In these lab experiments, they’re totally anonymous, they’re one-off interactions, [and] there’s really no future benefit from cooperating because they’re designed in this kind of artificial way,” Rand explained.

Second, when making quick choices, subjects who were intuitively trusting and unaccustomed to playing economic games were more likely to make cooperative decisions, even when not in their self-interest.

In one scenario, the researchers told participants that the contribution pool would double if they shared with others. When participants had time to do the math, they figured out they would lose money in this scenario and decided not to pool their money. But those who were forced to make a decision in less than 10 seconds relied on their habitual tendencies to cooperate.

But more deliberation did not always preclude cooperation.

In cases where the interest of the group aligned with the interest of the individual, more deliberation did not negatively affect participants’ cooperative inclinations.

“Overall this work suggests that it is important to set up societal institutions that make cooperation advantageous, both socially and individually,” said Molly Crockett, a psychology professor at the University of Oxford who reviewed the study before it was published.

According to Rand, the study’s dependence on MTurk — an online forum where researchers can recruit study participants — skewed the subject pool. MTurk is commonly used by psychologists to recruit study participants, so they are often “fantastically experienced” in economic games, Rand said.

To address this issue, subjects were asked whether or not they had experience with this kind of game. Rand stressed that questions about naïveté were asked at the end, so as not to affect the way subjects answered questions.

According to David DeSteno, a Northeastern University professor who reviewed the study before publication, the only methodological improvement he would have liked to see would have been manipulating subjects’ expectations of the trustworthiness of their fellow participants, instead of simply relying on their self-reported expectations.

Rand suggested that further research would include looking into how intuitive responses are formed and changed, as well as how to allow deliberation without fear of increasing selfishness.

Earlier this month, Rand published another cooperation study, this time focusing on whether cooperation is an inherent trait.