Character of Giver More Important Than What's Got

I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise, but character traits mean more to us than material benefits when we're thinking about how much we like someone.

When it comes to making decisions involving others, the impression we have of their character weighs more heavily than do our assessments of how they can benefit us, a team of New York University researchers has found.

 “When we learn and make decisions about people, we don’t simply look at the positive or negative outcomes they bring to us—such as whether they gave us a loan or helped us move,” explains Leor Hackel, a doctoral candidate in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the study’s lead author. “Instead, we often look beyond concrete outcomes to form trait impressions, such as how generous a person seems to be, and these impressions carry more weight in our future social decisions."

Admit it.  Don't you look deeper into how a person treats you than the $2 they may have given you when you came up short at the counter?  This has happened to me often in the grocery store, where I just need that extra dime or dollar, and people I don't even know hand it over.  Yeah, the dime is nice. But what's even nicer is that the person did it.

The study offers new insights into how we learn about people from our interactions with them—and departs from existing scholarship, reports. A prevailing view in the field is that, when we learn from positive or negative feedback, we come to see the people or things we learned about in terms of the benefits—or “reward value”—they bring us.

 In an experiment, participants learned about other people in a series of interactions in an economic game played over the computer. For each round of the game, the participant viewed two other players and chose one to interact with; the chosen player would then share an amount of money. Some shared a lot and others shared little.

Importantly, some players had larger pots of money than others, and so the amount they shared could represent a large or small proportion of their funds. This proportion represented a player’s generosity, which was independent from the absolute value of the money they shared.

The aim of this part of the study was to determine whether participants learned the relative generosity of a player—a “trait impression”—in addition to learning the monetary worth of the player.

The researchers’ statistical tests showed that participants learned generosity information (the proportion the player gave relative to his endowment) more strongly than reward value (the absolute amount the player actually gave). The strong tendency to focus on a player’s trait characteristics was striking, the study’s authors note, given that computer modeling revealed that a focus on a player’s reward value would have yielded more shared money to the participant. 

Finally, when participants were asked to choose which players they would prefer to interact with in a future cooperative task, their preferences were strongly guided by their trait impressions of players, relative to a player’s reward value. 

The researchers found that people naturally see others and even objects in terms of more general characteristics—and not just in terms of mere reward value.

 So I guess, even in our very materialistic society, sometimes character is wealth.


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